The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) rulemaking on collecting broadband data has brought some of the critics of Connect Kentucky/Connected Nation to the fore, while challenging the semi-sacred status of the “public-private partnership.”
In recent comments filed with the Commission, the arguments on who should map broadband deployment fall into two categories. One side is those of Connect and its allies in the telephone companies, cable companies and labor. The other is the one made up of public agencies and publicly owned utilities which are wary of too much of the “private” side taking over the equation. The Kentucky Public Service Commission (PSC) and the American Public Power Association (APPA), led by their Kentucky members, are in the forefront. As those Connect opponents point out, the problem with public-private partnerships is that it’s sometimes hard to tell where the private interests are.
The PSC told the FCC that, “As often recognized by public policy makers across the country, specific private business interests are not always consistent, or even compatible, with broader public interests.” One would never know from the 56-pages that Connect filed (or from its Web site for that matter) how much of the “private” part of the equation and how much of the “public” is represented.
Let’s take a look at the Connect Board of Directors. There are 12 outside directors, eight of which are directly in the orbit of network operators. They are not small players.
James W. Cicconi – AT&T senior executive vice president-external and legislative affairs
Steve Largent – CTIA – The Wireless Association president and CEO
Joseph W. Waz – Comcast senior vice president, external affairs and public policy counsel
Larry Cohen – Communications Workers of America president. CWA is a subsidiary of the telephone companies in telecom policy.
Thomas J. Tauke – Verizon executive vice president for public affairs, policy and communication
Walter B. McCormick – United States Telecom Association president
Kyle E. McSlarrow – National Cable and Telecommunications Association president
Grant Seiffert – Telecommunications Industry Association president. (The members are the equipment makers who sell their gear to the telecom industry.)
Also on the board are a couple of executives with Kentucky connections. Doug Robinson is the executive director of the Lexington-based National Association of State Chief Information Officers, and previously held several information technology related jobs in Kentucky state government.
Harry Herington is chairman of NIC, a company that provides Web portal services to states, including the award-winning Kentucky state government Web site. NIC joined Connected Nation as a member in April, and it was recommended then that he also join the Board, according to Nancy Beaton, an NIC spokesman. Their take is that it’s good for the e-government business if more people have access to broadband.
Rounding out the board are John Davies, the general manager of the Intel World Ahead program and Wendy Lazarus, founder and co-president of The Children’s Partnership. The partnership, among other programs, works to bring the benefits of technology to children through its Techpolicybank program. Connect is looking for more non-commercial representatives.
With that background, take a look at Connect’s argument to the FCC. The Connect argument is that the Commission shouldn’t screw up all the “progress” that “public-private partnerships” have made in collecting information. That data would be much better than any collected by the FCC, Connect argued in its filing.
Rather than have the Commission collect broadband information, the FCC should be a repository for data that others, these public-private partnerships, presumably like Connect, collect, the information. The Federal government isn’t used to dealing with small providers, who don’t often have deployment information available, Connect said, although it didn’t explain how it could get the needed data when the government couldn’t.
The Federal government would make a mess of things, Connect said, saying that a new FCC program “could halt these detailed and dynamic state and local mapping efforts in their tracks—and replace it with a vastly inferior, static, dated, and woefully incomplete federal ‘map.’” Of course, the Federal government could use the same techniques, and perhaps improve upon them.
Connect even tries to make a strength out of its greatest weakness – that no companies are required to give it any information. As a result, “confidentiality of company data is maintained,” and as a result “service providers to be more willing to collaborate with us,” Connect said. Of course, there’s no verification for any gaps in data, and the information stays in private hands, not in public ones for all to use.
But for the first time in a public record, Connect’s critics are making the case that despite the near-universal official praise, the program has serious flaws, both in the structure of the “partnership” and in methodology.
APPA filed a powerful commentary that questioned the FCC’s “seemingly heavy reliance” on the Connect model. APPA pointed out that the privatized-data model used by Connect because there is no government oversight or enforcement, and that the information is receives is “shielded from public review or legal challenge.” Noting that government agencies will have policies influenced by the data collected, APPA noted that there is “always the risk that if the data-gathering and data-synthesizing function is performed by a private non-profit entity populated by persons with industry connections and/or funded in significant part by industry, its data output may be skewed, consciously or unconsciously, in the direction of supporting the interests of those that financially support or have influence with that entity.” APPA added that Connect’s concerns about the confidentiality of information are “exaggerated,” noting that the segments of the industry know what broadband services are being deployed where, that it’s only policymakers and potential subscribers who are left in the dark.
The PSC also took on the confidentiality argument, telling the Commission, “Private interests often argue that detailed infrastructure information should be considered proprietary and protected from public disclosure. However, without the necessary transparency, the data can be easily misused or misconstrued to the detriment of the public interest being served. Merely labeling an initiative as a public-private partnership does not ensure impartiality. There must be real and adequate oversight that permits interested and vested parties to see the entire model and the underlying data, not just a map of surface features.”
A group of consumer organizations, including Public Knowledge, Consumers Union and Consumer Federation of America, in comments prepared by Free Press’s excellent team, urged the FCC to be more critical in its assessment of the actual impact of such public-private programs. To date, there has been no empirical program evaluation of these projects, and the benefits have not been quantified.” The comments noted a major flaw in Connect’s methodology and calcuations, pointing out that big claims for improvement in broadband penetration for a low-performing state like Kentucky are “unremarkable, especially compared to the nationwide average improvement.”
The New Jersey Rate Counsel also argued against confidentiality of information: “The public interest is not served by preserving secrecy in broadband deployment.” And the California Public Utilities Commission argued that the FCC mapping efforts should be considered an adjunct to, not a replacement for, state efforts.
The FCC isn’t the only public institution enamored of the “public private partnership” model. Congress is as well. The Senate is due to take up soon an omnibus collection of about 40 bills (S 3297) that includes S. 1492, that would establish a data mapping program. (This is the so-called “Tomnibus” made up of bills blocked by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK.) That legislation, while providing more conditions and protections on data collection, still has elements of the Connect model in it as well as the loophole of protecting “confidential and proprietary” information. It will probably be hard to take out the offending language, or to remove that bill from the package, but those voting should read the comments of concerned agencies and businesses carefully before voting.