Like all government initiatives, the broadband element of the economic stimulus package is broken into several key elements: getting the money pledged, working out procedures for allocating the funds, allocating them, building the networks and, finally, running them. Each of these has their own internal dramas.
The first step of the process -- feeding the kitty -- is done. The industry is ankle-deep in the second. The initial task is to figure out where broadband is needed. That sounds simple, but it is the focal point of quite a fight. It turns out that mapping broadband is a complex and creative endeavor. Good details are provided in this New York Times blog that was posted at about the time The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was enacted.
The question is how to divvy up the $350 million that the ARRA sets aside for mapping. Many people feel that the firm that has garnered most of the attention, Connected Nation, is too close to the big telephone companies. The danger, critics say, is that maps that overestimate the broadband capabilities of a particular area or that are so vague that they provide no useful information are more likely to lead to bad decisions on which bids to accept and which to reject.
In that context, a study released this week by the Communications Workers of America is interesting. It clearly suggests that where a person is has a big impact on what kind of connectivity they have access to. That's no revelation, but some of the figures provide an interesting context to the stimulus debate-something that CWA most likely had in mind.
The discrepancies can be stark. The testing, which involved more than 413,000 users and was done between May 2008 and May 2009, showed, for instance, that average speed is more than four times faster in Delaware than Alaska which, coincidentally, are the home states of the vice presidential nominees in the last election. The Alaska speed is 2.3 Mbps; Joe Biden's friends and family clock in at 9.9 Mbps. While this study provides the highest of high-level overviews, it clearly demonstrates the need for change in general, and detailed, even-handed mapping in particular.
The study says the average download speed in the U.S. is 5.1 Mbps. Folks in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states in general have the fastest service, and those in the south the worst. The study also says that the United States fares poorly compared to other nations. Again, that is not a revelation.
It's almost impossible to consider the broadband element of the stimulus package without employing the woefully overused expression that "the devil is in the details." Just how the current situation is assessed in the field will have a big impact on how funds are awarded going forward and, ultimately, whether the various disparities -- between north and south, east and west, rural and urban and the United States and other nations -- will fade, remain the same or even become more extreme.