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Want Better Broadband in America? Take the Broadband Census!

March 3rd, 2008 · 4 Comments

Note: I guest-blogged this morning at the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet:

By Drew Clark

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.

What can be done to Build a Broadband Strategy for America? That’s what we’ll be talking about on Tuesday, March 4, during the Keynote Luncheon at the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet’s 2008 Politics Online conference. Read about the star-studded panel that I’ll be moderating. You can also read my previous blog post on why divergent parties do seem to be coalescing around a National Broadband Strategy.

As a technology reporter, I’ve been writing about the battles over broadband for nearly a decade here in Washington. There is one fact about which nearly everyone seems to be in agreement: if America wants better broadband, America need better broadband data. That’s why I’ve recently started a new venture to collect this broadband data, and to make the data available for all on the Web at BroadbandCensus.com.

Take the Broadband Census!

BroadbandCensus.com is designed to help Internet users measure and understand information about the availability, competition, speeds and prices of broadband within their areas.

When you go the BroadbandCensus.com Web site, you’ll type in your ZIP code. You’ll find out how many broadband providers the Federal Communications Commission says are available in your area. You can compare that number to your own sense of the competitive landscape. And now, with BroadbandCensus.com, you can help others understand the true state of broadband competition.

You can Take the Broadband Census by answering a short questionnaire on the site. Your answers will create linkages between a broadband provider and the ZIP codes in which they offer service. You can compare your notes about your service with the experience of other Internet users in your neighborhood.

This idea is by no means original. In recent years, more and more people have been urging the FCC to collect more detailed information about broadband – and to make more of that information publicly available.

Consider several pieces of legislation in Congress. 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 now before the Senate.

In addition to providing money for state initiatives to map out broadband, the Broadband Census of America Act 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.”

In the Senate, the current version of the farm bill, H.R. 4212, 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.”

Going Beyond Broadband Availability – to Broadband Competition, Speeds and Prices

These 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 Bell companies and cable operators, Connect Kentucky identified gaps in coverage and underserved areas. Read about how the group has created a detailed map of broadband availability. It is now replicating its efforts in Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Connect Kentucky has spawned an entire movement – Connected Nation – which aims to map out broadband availability. Other groups unconnected to Connected Nation are engaged in similar mapping efforts, including the California Broadband Initiative and Massachusetts Broadband Initiative.

Knowing where broadband is and isn’t available is, indeed, the first step toward making sure that broadband truly is accessible to all Americans. But the next steps are broadband competition, broadband speeds and broadband prices. Filling out the rest of this picture is the goal of BroadbandCensus.com.

BroadbandCensus.com includes the names of the carriers offering service in each local area. Using the carrier name as a key, a consumer can rate and rank her broadband providers based on speeds and service. (We’ll be including pricing information in the future, too.) By rating their service quality, Broadband Census Takers and Broadband Census Users will be able to make true head-to-head comparisons. BroadbandCensus.com believes that meaningful information about customer service plans is an essential part of understanding broadband.

And judging by last week’s hearing of the Federal Communications Commission in Cambridge, Mass., it looks like this is principle with which everyone can agree. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said that broadband providers needed to be transparent with their customers about the speeds, prices and terms of service at which they offer broadband. Speaking at the hearing, Professor Tim Wu (a panelist at Tuesday’s keynote discussion), Professor Christopher Yoo, and Verizon Communications Executive Vice President Tom Tauke all agreed.

Keeping Tabs on Broadband Speeds and Service Plan Information

At BroadbandCensus.com, we’re going forward with the next step: last week we launched a beta version of an Internet speed test. It is called the NDT, or the Network Diagnostic Tool. The NDT is under active development by the Internet2 community, an advanced networking consortium led by the research and education community. The NDT has been used by other broadband mapping endeavors, including the eCorridors Program at Virginia Tech, which is working to collect data of residential and small business broadband trends throughout the state of Virginia.

Additionally, the Pew Internet & American Life Project has contracted with BroadbandCensus.com to gather anonymized information about users’ broadband experiences on the web site, and to incorporate those findings into Pew’s 2008 annual broadband report. BroadbandCensus.com is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial License. That means that the content on the site is available for all to view, copy, redistribute and reuse for free, providing that attribution is provided to BroadbandCensus.com, and that such use is done for non-commercial purposes.

But the Broadband Census will only succeed if you and I go online and Take the Broadband Census! And don’t be shy in letting me know what you think! You can e-mail me at: drew at broadbandcensus.com.

Tags: Broadband Census · Connect Kentucky · Connected Nation · broadband · broadband data

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