The National Broadband Map: It Rules, But Drools Too

March 4th, 2011 by · 5 Comments

Ok, several people have asked why I haven’t commented on the National Broadband Map yet.  It was, of course, unveiled a week or two ago to great fanfare, and has generally gotten good reviews.  Or at least as good as is possible for such an endeavor.  Despite my own predilection toward maps in general, and maps related to fiber and bandwidth more specifically, I haven’t been able to get real excited about it.  Here are my top 3 reasons why it’s great, and my top 3 reasons for why it’s not:

Why the National Broadband Map Rules:

  1. It’s a very slick web application.  As a software guy who does all his own coding for this and some other sites, I can recognize good work when I see it.  I had feared we would see something that resembled the disaster area they call the FCC website, but I was pleasantly surprised.  It’s usable, understandable, and uncomplicated.
  2. It really does what it was supposed to, which is to document where there is broadband, who offers it, what kind it is, and how fast it is.  And of course where there isn’t broadband.
  3. As Jonathan Lee over on TelecomSense explains, it could provide an actual, viable pathway toward applying USF to the expansion of broadband into unserved areas in an efficient, transparent, and perhaps cheaper way.

Why the National Broadband Map Drools:

  1. We spent $350M on it, or $200M over five years, or whatever – hundreds of millions of dollars whichever way you count it.  So, yes, it damn well better be a slick web application.  Because from a developer perspective, at its core this thing is a) a commonplace map interface, b) a database full of well defined entries added via automated submission, and c) enough bandwidth and server capacity to handle a pretty good load but no video or anything particularly difficult or congestion-sensitive.  No more than that.  I’d love to see where all the money really went.
  2. It was out of date the day it was published.  They’re going to update it every 6 months, but there’s no way it’s going to ever be close to the current state on the ground.  They’ll be getting updated data from various sources which supposedly include the public via crowd-sourcing, but that process appears to be vaporware at this time.  How many consumers does it take to successfully override one self-reported datapoint from some multi-billion dollar company that leaves bags of gourmet cupcakes on FCC desks for kicks?  No really, how many?  Wikipedia this is not.
  3. How many of us really need a map to tell us who to call for broadband where we live?  Consumers and companies know who serves their own areas, it’s the government that doesn’t have a clear picture.  It’s a tool for bureaucrats, but merely a curiosity for the rest of us.  But will they really do anything different now that they have it?  Or will they use it to justify what they’re already planning to do, as influenced by the ever present armies of lobbyists?

But then, anything the FCC actually completes on time and within budget is worth a hearty cheer, so I’ll stop griping now.  What do you think, is the National Broadband Map the best thing since ISDN?

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Categories: Government Regulations

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5 Comments So Far

  • Melker says:

    I just tried to see what providers offer broadband in my area. I entered zip code 80443 and it returned a number of wireless providers. Interestingly, neither Qwest nor Comcast showed up in the results both of which offer the broadband here. I have had Comcast broadband for years. So, either the tool is incomplete or I have been fooled and all I have is dial-up.

  • Mapping says:

    $350million, huh. For a site and map that crashed the first 3 times I tried it, but seems to work now. For a map that leaves off providers, improperly identifies the number of actual providers and request users to provide the information that was supposed to be a part of the contract. Contracts that did not go to the low bidders in many instances. As a tool for USF? Get ready to hear from rural LEC’s about that…..

  • Jonathan Lee says:

    Hey, Rob. Thanks for the “shout out.” I agree completely with the shortcomings you point out. I don’t expect this map to ever be (especially for what it cost) better than the Yellow Pages for consumer purposes. And, my USF suggestion . . . “Mapping” is correct, and I heavily caveated that one. The real value can only be realized if states supplement the Map, bring middle mile carriers to the table, and seek out demand that the map doesn’t report.

    Given that telecom infrastructure is so expensive, it might not take much for the map to stimulate some discussion among carriers–move a little fiber out to 4G wireless providers sooner than would otherwise occur–and in that way I think the Map might pay for itself.

    The other potential plus of the Map is that it might allow other carriers (like wholesale fiber guys) to bail out the BTOP “mistakes.” Some of these projects will fail, and will offer wholesale carriers a chance to extend their networks even deeper, for cheaper.

    Still, if states don’t work with private carriers to stimulate discussion and business opportunities, then the biggest chance for the Map to pay out will be lost. Nonetheless, NTIA can’t do it all on their own, and they did get a serviceable product out on time–in contrast with the questionably-useful national broadband “plan.”

  • mhammett says:

    You’d be surprised at how clueless the consumer is about what sources of Internet are available to them.

    You can send direct mail, sponsor events, take out ads, purchase billboards, and yet there is still a sizable population that doesn’t know anything beyond the ILEC and MSO.

    The states were the ones that commissioned entities to undertake their mapping projects. The map is only as good as the information submitted. A lot of wireless providers weren’t even contacted. Some that were refused to provide information out of fear.

    • Rob Powell says:

      Yeah, but you’re not likely to get those folks to visit a web app either, let alone use it properly!

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