Want Better Broadband in America? Take the Broadband Census! (Commentary)

by on July 15, 2008 · 7 comments

The following commentary appears in the current issue of Opastco Advocate, a monthly newsletter published by the Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies. Reprinted by permission.

Most Americans who have high-speed Internet can’t imagine life without broadband. How could you connect to the Internet of today without it? In today’s world, broadband is as basic as running water and electricity. And yet the U.S. is falling behind globally. As a technology reporter, I’ve been writing about the battles over broadband and the Internet for nearly a decade in Washington. Yet there is one fact about which nearly everyone seems to be in agreement: if America wants better broadband, America needs better broadband data.

That’s why I’ve recently started a new venture to collect this broadband data, and to make this data freely available for all on the Web, at http://BroadbandCensus.com.

The information and news that is available for free at BroadbandCensus.com is more important now than ever before. The FCC has just made important changes to how it will collect data from carriers. The agency may make even more significant changes in the near future. Public and private sector groups of all stripes are demanding, ever more loudly, that government take steps toward a national broadband policy. That cannot be done without solid information about broadband. Finally, many large carriers are beginning to implement plans to meter out bandwidth in tiers and with usage caps. This marketplace development makes the mission of an independent monitoring Website like BroadbandCensus.com even more critical.

BroadbandCensus.com Serves Consumers, Policymakers, and Carriers

BroadbandCensus.com is designed to help three constituencies: Internet consumers, policymakers, and broadband carriers focused on customer satisfaction. In the long term, we believe that the interests of carriers are aligned with those of their customers and their potential customers.

Internet users benefit by being able to measure and understand information about the availability, competition, speeds and prices of broadband within their areas. When an Internet user goes to the BroadbandCensus.com Website, he or she types in a ZIP code. By doing so, the consumer will find out how many broadband providers the FCC says are available. The consumer can compare that number to his or her own sense of the competitive landscape, as well as the names of the carriers published by BroadbandCensus.com.

The site then invites visitors to Take the Broadband Census! This is a short questionnaire, and it is followed by a free Internet speed test. Each consumer that takes the census puts in their ZIP code, or their ZIP+4 code, selects their broadband carrier from a drop-down menu, and rates that company’s performance on a scale of one to five stars.

The consumer then has the opportunity to add their own comments about the carrier. They may then take a bandwidth speed test. Each of these steps adds data into BroadbandCensus.com. That means that the next visitor to the Website will be better informed about the availability, competition, speeds and customer service of their local broadband options. It also produces a free database of consumer data about more than 1,600 broadband carriers in the U.S.

BroadbandCensus.com also aims to aid policymakers crafting sensible broadband policies based on solid research. We have a contract with the Pew Internet and American Life Project to contribute our information and research to their annual broadband report, and we are working with other broadband researchers around the country.

Consider just three hot-button broadband issues: the Universal Service Fund; whether carriers are engaged in blocking or degrading Internet traffic; and ensuring that all sections of the country – rural as well as inner-city – are digitally included in our broadband world. Better data about competition, speeds and prices are necessary to craft each of these policies. This is what we aim to provide, free of charge, to policymakers on the federal, state and local level, as well as to the public at large.

BroadbandCensus.com is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial License. That means that the contents of the site are available, for free, for all to view, copy, redistribute and reuse provided that attribution is made to BroadbandCensus.com, and that such use is done for non-commercial purposes. This is more than just legalese. It means that government agencies and university researchers can benefit from our platform showcasing the best and most accurate broadband data publicly available. State, county and regional development agencies, for example, may republish our data through their own Websites so long as they attribute it to BroadbandCensus.com.

Putting Carrier-Level Information Into BroadbandCensus.com

BroadbandCensus.com aims to collect information from the bottom up. This helps to keep the Internet consumer at the center of the broadband experience. But carriers are obviously integral to this process. We seek to build upon the relationships that we have with dozens of carriers. We also want to form new relationships with hundreds more carriers, such as yourselves. Rural carriers and other special providers of broadband are natural candidates to work with BroadbandCensus.com. We want to build constructive ties with all of you.

The data within BroadbandCensus.com is aggregated from at least four sources: (1) “bottom-up” data from consumers; (2) publicly available information about which providers offer broadband service within each ZIP code; (3) FCC data about the number of broadband providers in each ZIP code; and (4) local broadband information collected and published by state and county regulators.

We also seek information about the availability, prices and speeds that are offered by OPASTCO’s member carriers. Only individuals can make service ratings and measure actual Internet speeds, of course. But carriers are far more likely to have the most up-to-date information about the ZIP codes, and the ZIP+4 codes, in which they offer service. Carriers are also better suited to provide pricing data and information about the speed tiers that they offer to their consumers.

Would each of you be willing to provide us with information about the areas that you serve, the speeds at which you offer services, and the prices at which you sell those services?

Some carriers may resist the notion that they should provide information about where they offer service, let alone the prices at which they do so, on a public Website. Doing so, they believe, would simply aid their competitors. This kind of thinking isn’t uncommon in the business world today. But it is at odds with the notion of radical transparency being followed by many of the most successful technology and communications companies.

The April 2007 issue of Wired magazine cast a spotlight on this development. “You can’t hide anything anymore,” said Don Tapscott, co-author of The Naked Corporation, about corporate openness, as well as Wikinomics, in the piece. “Trying to hide something illicit – trying to hide anything, really – is an unwise gamble,” said Clive Thompson, author of the article entitled “The See-Through CEO.” “Transparency is a judo move,” Thompson continued. “Your customers are going to poke around in your business anyway…so why not make it work for you by turning everyone into a partner in the process and inviting them to do so?”

BroadbandCensus.com agrees. Consumers are going to find out where you offer service. Indeed, they must know in order to get service! They will also find out whether or not you deliver on your promised speeds, and whether or not other customers out there are satisfied or dissatisfied. The Internet simply provides all of these individuals with the wherewithall – the virtual gathering space, if you will – to come together and talk about you. Transparency about broadband availability, competition, speeds and prices is the raison d’être for BroadbandCensus.com. But it doesn’t benefit anyone to close the doors of communication with you, the telecom carriers.

Take the issue of broadband pricing. Many different broadband service providers offer different bundles and pricing plans for different speeds and service options. This creates a myriad of choices involving voice and video (with many different channel options and prices), as well as additional services, such as wireless data, home security and maintenance services, etc. This complicated patchwork of options is one reason that BroadbandCensus.com has held off, for now, with systematically collecting “bottom up” data about broadband prices. Consumers are the best gauge of customer service – but they may not remember all of the services they take. They also may not accurately report the prices for the packages that they buy.

It would be better to get this pricing and bundle options information directly from carriers. We have built a back-end interface on BroadbandCensus.com that allows carriers who wish to participate the ability to upload information about locations, prices and offered speeds. We are still working on the best way to display prices within a particular ZIP code or ZIP+4 code. We are more than open to your suggestions on this matter.

Participation in the Broadband Census is completely optional. Carriers that choose not to participate are identified, on our Website, as “[Particular carrier] does not provide the Broadband Census with local Internet information.” When carriers do participate, that label does not appear.

Understanding the Speed Test

BroadbandCensus.com was officially launched on Jan. 31, 2008, and we launched the beta version of our speed test on Feb. 21, 2008. For our beta speed test, we use NDT, or the Network Diagnostic Tool, an open-source speed test under active development by the research consortium Internet2. We have assembled thousands of speed tests, census entries and comments from everyday Internet uses – all of which are freely accessible at BroadbandCensus.com. We are well aware of the great diversity of results obtained through our beta speed test. We understand that many variables, including network configuration, Internet congestion, and customer equipment, affect the actual speed test results. We strive to be as transparent as possible about the technology that we are using to conduct our speed tests, and to help publicize the methodology employed by our version of the NDT speed test.

Policy Agenda for a Broadband Census

BroadbandCensus.com builds on the momentum behind federal, state and local efforts to collect more detailed information about broadband. Consider that Rep. Ed Markey, (D-Mass.), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, has introduced legislation that would provide the public with better broadband information. Markey’s Broadband Census of America Act, H.R. 3919, has passed the House of Representatives and is still before the Senate.

In addition to providing money for state initiatives to map out broadband, the Broadband Census of America Act calls for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to create a publicly available map of broadband deployment. The map would feature not only broadband availability, but also “each commercial provider or public provider of broadband service capability.”

Sen. Richard Durbin, (D-Ill.) has introduced S. 1190, the “Connect the Nation Act.” Durbin’s bill would authorize $40 million a year, for five years, for state efforts to map out broadband inventory on the census block level. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, (D-Hawaii) has introduced S. 1492, the Broadband Data Improvement Act, which takes a similar approach. The goal, stated in the identical language of both bills, is to “identify and track the availability and adoption of broadband services within each state.” Neither of these bills has cleared the chamber.

Additionally, the broadband data bills have been inspired by a growing movement in the states to map out broadband availability within their territories. This effort began with Connect Kentucky, a non-profit initiative designed to compile statistics about regional broadband deployment. In partnership with the regional Bell operating companies and cable operators, Connect Kentucky identified gaps in coverage and underserved areas. It is now replicating its efforts in Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and South Carolina. Other groups unconnected to Connect Kentucky are engaged in similar mapping efforts, including the California Broadband Task Force and Massachusetts Broadband Initiative.

Now the FCC will be drilling into broadband availability information in greater detail. On June 12, the agency released an order requiring broadband providers to report the number of subscribers they have, not only in each ZIP code (as has been required since 2000), but also in each Census tract.

This is a welcome development. We applaud those who have pushed the FCC to collect more granular data. As soon as the agency collects, and then releases, information about broadband availability within a particular Census tract, we will immediately include this additional information in BroadbandCensus.com. ZIP codes are larger than Census tracts, and Census tracts are larger than ZIP+4 codes. While BroadbandCensus.com currently displays data at the ZIP code level, in the future we will display data at the ZIP+4 code level – and that will also include the Census tract level. Knowing where broadband is and is not available is indeed the first step toward making sure that broadband truly is accessible to all Americans.

But availability alone doesn’t go far enough. The next steps include understanding broadband competition, broadband speeds and broadband prices. On this score, BroadbandCensus.com has criticized the FCC’s order as inadequate to help consumers know and understand their broadband options. Because the agency continues to exclude carrier information from the public data that it releases, Internet consumers are not likely to benefit from the more granular information collection. The FCC appears to acknowledge this limitation. The order included a “further notice” section in which the agency seeks comments on whether, and how, it should conduct information about delivered speeds and prices.


Fleshing out this complete picture – broadband availability, competition, speeds, prices and customer service – is the long-term goal of BroadbandCensus.com. By including the names of carriers, and by allowing consumers to rate their service quality, BroadbandCensus.com will enable Internet users to make true headto- head comparisons. We believe that these types of comparisons are an essential part of understanding connectedness, fostering a competitive Internet, and in building a national broadband strategy for America. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at drew at broadbandcensus.com.

URL: http://broadbandcensus.com/blog/?p=80

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