Broadband Census for America Conference

Today, Broadbandcensus.com hosted a half-day event titled, naturally, “Broadband Census for America.” The event “seeks to improve our understanding of current practices in broadband data collection and discuss ways of improving and expanding publicly-available data within the United States.”

Rachelle Chong, current California state Public Utilities Commissioner (PUC) and former FCC Commissioner, reinforced a mantra heard throughout the day–organizations need access to robust, accurate broadband data to support efforts to better connect consumers. Chong said California’s broadband initiatives receive strong support from state policymakers, including Governor Schwarzenegger, who created a state broadband task force to identify barriers and map wireline and wireless broadband availability. In carrying out this mission, Chong found that carriers were often reluctant to provide data. The PUC even had to sign non-disclosure agreements with many of the broadband carriers in order to receive street level data. Later, this information had to be aggregated and the raw data destroyed. Eventually, the task force was able to map competing broadband providers in every census tract in California.

Many speakers championed the idea that broadband is infrastructure. Chong connected broadband to development–“If you don’t support broadband, you’re not going to have state-of-the-art technological innovation.” She observed that access to broadband is only the first step–we need to tackle the problem of affordability too. Further, she said that it is necessary for politicians to understand that broadband is a critical infrastructure. If lawmakers think the internet is a mere “luxury”–and not an essential infrastructural component like the electrical grid–they’re not going to fund it.

Art Brodsky, Communications Director at Public Knowledge, said that broadband data gathering and mapping efforts need to rely the best information available. “To do this right,” he said, “we can’t have voluntary data collection.” He said that in Maryland, carriers have been extremely reluctant to provide broadband data, even going so far as to claim that revealing information about networks could pose a threat to national security (supposedly terrorists will blow up the infrastructure).

Debbie Goldman, representing the Communication Workers of America and their Speedmatters.org speed test, said that we need more information about actual, not just advertised broadband speeds. The Speedmatters.org website allows a user to test the speed of his or her internet connection, and has aggregated over 350,000 individual speed tests over the past two years. Goldman admits the test does not capture a random sample of the population, but argues it is useful in documenting on-the-ground, real-time speeds.

Drew Clark, Executive Director of Broadbandcensus.com, said that the public is served best by the greatest possible disclosure of information. He warned that even though the FCC collects a lot of detailed information, they refuse to release some of the data, mainly due to confidentiality complaints from carriers. But, by harnessing the power of consumer crowdsourcing, Broadbandcensus.com allows a user to not only take an internet speed test, but also provide information about his or her provider and submit comments about quality of service or other issues.

Dr. William Lehr, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reiterated the idea that we need to view broadband as fundamental infrastructure for an information society–“markets simply don’t work if there is not good information.” He also urged for the collection of broadband data for not only individual households, but for businesses too.

John Windhausen, President of Telepoly Consulting and ALA consultant, extended Lehr’s thought to libraries, focusing on issues of connection quality. He said that even though a public library may have a T1 connection, the fact that the connection is shared by a large number of simultaneous users can slow it to a crawl. This alternate facet of the broadband connectivity problem may require us to examine data collection in terms of the user experience, not only institutional access to a pipe. In this situation, he asked, “How much bandwidth is enough?”

About Jacob Roberts

Jacob Roberts is the communications specialist for the ALA Washington Office.