Saturday, March 08, 2008

Mapmaking a diversion on the road to full broadband deployment

One of the biggest diversions to filling in America’s many persistent broadband black holes is the idea of geographically mapping broadband availability. It’s been a prominent activity of telco industry backed nonprofits and broadband task forces and working groups established by state governments with the goal of increasing broadband access. Those mapmaking efforts have in turn influenced some in Congress to propose mapping the entire nation.

Unfortunately, too many well intended policymakers and broadband advocates have fallen into the misguided notion that in order increase broadband access, it must first be known where the broadband black holes are.

But rather than speeding broadband deployment, the mapping proposals have slowed it by creating an unnecessary way station on the road to full broadband deployment. They’ve produced disputes among telcos and cable companies who believe the maps will reveal their deployment strategies to competitors. (Not true, but that’s beside the point) Then there are debates among the providers and the mapmakers over the degree of granularity. Should the maps be drawn based on five-digit ZIP Codes, ZIP plus 4 or census tracts?

These mapping exercises are essentially busy work that distracts from the real task at hand: the need to deploy broadband infrastructure to eliminate those areas lacking it as rapidly as possible. Plus they give the telcos and cable companies an excuse to avoid further deployments until the scope of the maps is agreed upon and the maps are drawn up. When they’re completed, we end up with some nice pretty maps to look at but new no actual broadband deployment. Cynics might understandably suggest that’s a stall tactic on the part of the providers.

The maps also create a platform from which the providers can mount more empty promises of broadband deployment like AT&T's bogus Project Pronto. I recall attending a community meeting with AT&T’s predecessor entity SBC Communications in 2002 at which the telco displayed a large wall map showing a goal of broadband deployment to nearly 100 percent of its service areas by 2006. Here it is 2008 and Project Pronto turned out to be Project Punt.

The telcos and cable companies know where they've deployed broadband infrastructure. Public policymakers typically do not. Since local elected officials already represent a given geographical area, it’s very easy for them to poll their constituents on their Web sites, by mail and town hall meetings to ask them if they have broadband. Those living in broadband black holes will give them an earful. No mapping required.

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