By Drew Clark
Art Brodsky’s 4,789-word article about Connect Kentucky and its offspring Connected Nation has been the talk of telecom circles over the past week.
Connected Nation is a non-profit entity that has become one of biggest players in the currently topical field of broadband data. Using their work in Kentucky as a model for mapping out broadband availability nation-wide, the group has become a driving force behind legislation that would provide grants for other states to duplicate these efforts.
Examples of legislation following the Connect Kentucky model are the Senate version of the current farm bill, H.R. 4212, which includes Illinois Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin’s “Connect the Nation Act,” S. 1190. Durbin’s bill would authorize $40 million a year, for five years, to state efforts to map out broadband inventory on the census block level.
The “Broadband Data Improvement Act,” S. 1492, by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, takes a similar approach. The goal is, in the identical language of both bills, to “identify and track the availability and adoption of broadband services within each State.”
The House-passed “Broadband Census of America Act” by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., takes a slightly different approach. H.R. 3919 authorizes $20 million a year, for three years, for similar state initiatives. The crucial difference is that Markey’s bill also calls for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to create publicly-available map of broadband deployment. The map would feature not only broadband availability, but “each commercial provider or public provider of broadband service capability.”
The underlying premise behind all of these bills, and behind the image that Connected Nation presents, is that mapping out the availability of high-speed Internet access throughout the country would help policy-makers, business actors and consumers to better tap into the benefits of broadband.
This is a subject of great interest to me personally. Those of you who read my blog, DrewClark.com, know that I am working on a project that seeks to make more broadband data publicly available. I hope to able to announce the project’s launch by the end of this January.
The Advocacy Agenda of Connect Kentucky
Brodsky’s piece brings several of issues pertaining to broadband mapping and broadband data to the forefront right now.
Brodsky highlights the role that the Bell telecommunications companies have played in Connect Kentucky. Bell companies, like the former BellSouth (which is now part of AT&T), as well as other corporations and state government agencies, have financially supported Connect Kentucky. So have cable companies in Kentucky, as well as technology companies.
In sum, Brodsky’s thesis is as follows:
Connect Kentucky is nothing more than a sales force and front group for AT&T paid for by the telecommunications industry and by state and federal governments that has achieved far more in publicity than it has in actual accomplishment. Connect helps to promote AT&T services, while lobbying at the state capitol for the deregulation legislation the telephone company wants.
To this end, Brodsky cites the apparent support that Connect Kentucky played in the passage of House Bill 337 in Kentucky on April 22, 2006. As with other video franchising bills promoted by Bell companies in other states, House Bill 337 allowed the Bell companies to get into the pay television marketplace in Kentucky without having to obtain franchises from municipalities across the state. According Brodsky’s article, Connect Kentucky on May 17, 2006, said this about the bill:
The bill allows telephone providers to compete on an even playing field with unregulated phone, cable and Internet providers. The end result is that telecom companies, freed from the burden of regulation, now have an environment that is more conducive to investment in rural broadband deployment.
In Congress, the 2006 debate over legislation creating a nationwide video franchise became political, and politically divisive, when Net Neutrality became a part of the equation. Bell companies were able to achieve much of the same result, on a piecemeal basis, through state legislation in 2005 and 2006.
Supporters and Critics Weigh In on Brodsky’s Piece
Bell critics have chimed in on Brodsky’s piece. Matt Stoller argues that “Connect Kentucky also uses government funds to lobby aggressively for anti-consumer legislation, and is spreading to a bunch of different states as well as making its way into [Hillary] Clinton’s technology plan.”
Commentator kyisp, in the comments section of the Public Knowledge blog, where Brodsky’s article appeared, says that “Connect Kentucky is trying to legitimize AT&T’s position. It’s one thing when the big bad corporation says something but when a ‘nonprofit’ says it the general public tends to think it’s an objective point of view.”
Brodsky’s piece also takes issue with Connect Kentucky’s claim that nearly 90 percent of the state now has access to broadband. These claims of broadband progress that have been lavishly praised by Republicans and Democrats, and generated great publicity for the organization, such as this article in The Economist last year.
Brodsky contrasts the testimony of Connect Kentucky CEO Brian Mefford, before the Senate Commerce Committee on April 24, 2007, that Kentucky is on track “to be the first state with 100 percent broadband coverage,” with Leichtman Research Group data showing that, at the beginning of 2007, Kentucky was 46th of the 51 states and Washington, D.C., in residential broadband penetration.
Or in other words, adds Karl Bode at DSL Reports: “what’s being praised by politicians and the major phone providers as a plan to improve broadband penetration, is actually now a lobbying consortium tasked with presenting the illusion that broadband penetration is doing well – on the taxpayer dime.”
Mefford, and other Connect Kentucky supporters, question Brodsky’s article. In a post on the Web site of Save Access, Mefford called the article a form of “cowardice, choosing to sacrifice fact for a biased version of the truth.” He said that contributions from BellSouth/AT&T have been less than one-half of one percent of Connect Kentucky’s annual revenues, and takes issue with many points from the article.
Robert Atkinson, of the Information Technology and Information Foundation, was also harsh. Atkinson called the article “yellow journalism” and “attack by innuendo.” He said Connect Kentucky has gotten the vast bulk of its funding from state and federal governments, and not from Bell companies. He also said that if Connect Kentucky is truly a “sales force” for AT&T and its DSL broadband service, why would the Kentucky cable association and Comcast also be supporters?
What Connect Kentucky Does – And Doesn’t – Do
For me, the oddest aspect about the debate over the Bell companies and their relationship to Connect Kentucky is not about what Connect Kentucky does do. It is about what Connect Kentucky doesn’t do.
For example, Brodsky’s criticisms aside, Connect Kentucky has indeed done a thorough job of mapping about the availability of broadband within Kentucky. The mapping page on the Connect Kentucky Web site features a highly detailed inventory of where broadband is and isn’t within the state. The model is to figure out the parts of the state are not served, and the parts are underserved, in the hope that either the Bells – or competitors – will step in to the breach. That model has now been exported now to Tennessee, West Virginia and Ohio.
What Connect Kentucky doesn’t do, or at least doesn’t advertise doing, is measuring competition in the broadband marketplace. Knowing where broadband is available and where it isn’t available is only the first step in our nation’s broadband quotient. Knowing where broadband competition is available, and who the competitors are, is the crucial next step.
Connect Kentucky and Connected Nation don’t speak much, if at all, about this aspect of broadband mapping. In fact, the Durbin and Inouye bills sidestep this challenge completely. Ed Markey’s “Broadband Census of America Act,” by contrast, clearly states that local information about broadband competitors will be made available to the public. It appears that the Connected Nation approach to broadband mapping, as articulated in the Durbin and Inouye bills, doesn’t contemplate public access to or knowledge about the companies that provide broadband within a given area.
But in Kentucky, at least, Connect Kentucky does provides an interactive map that allows an individual to type in an address, inquire about broadband availability and identify actual broadband provider. Having been involved in several efforts to quantify broadband adoption, availability and competition, I find it a pretty complete list.
The odd fact about Connect Kentucky isn’t that Bell companies support the group. Nor is it that they appear to support legislation of the sort introduced by Sens. Durbin and Inouye, and also Rep. Markey’s bill. The disconnect is that same Bell companies that say they support both Connect Kentucky and broadband mapping legislation have simultaneously fought off others who seek to publicize the extent of the Bell carriers’ broadband reach.
On this issue, it is truly perplexing to know on which side the Bell companies stand. But for all the controversy over Connect Kentucky, it is better that the Bell companies say that they want to take a census of our nation’s broadband. That, at least, is the first step in actually getting there.