Putting Broadband on the Map

Carl Weinschenk

Clearly the most important element of any overall activity meant to change a wide ranging condition is creating an exact measure of what that condition is. That's a rather clumsy and vague way of saying that any efforts the government is making to push broadband is dependent on knowing where it is and where it isn't.

<strong>Until now, such an accounting wasn't available</strong>. The situation changed on Feb. 17 when the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) lit the National Broadband Map. InformationWeek reports that the $200 million initiative can search 25 million records to see what DSL, cable modem, mobile broadband, fiber optic and other high-speed service is available in a given address.

The administration clearly is making a concerted effort during the early months of the year to address broadband in general and rural concerns in particular. The announcement of the Broadband Map comes on the heels of proposed changes to the Universal Service Fund proposed a couple of weeks ago by the FCC and to the special attention President Obama paid to broadband in the State of the Union address and to wireless broadband earlier this month in a speech in Michigan.

The attention can be understood in the context of the desire to address the chronic digital divide. InformationWeek adds that the NTIA simultaneously released a survey that said that 68 percent of households now have broadband access, compared to 63.5 percent a year ago. That's a nice increase in the span of a year, but the spread between rural and broadband access-60 percent and 70 percent, respectively, measured last year-still is great. There also are discrepancies in broadband use based on such factors as location, income, disabilities, age, ethnicity, education and employment status.

The Broadband Map can help get a handle on the issue. Ars Technica does a nice job of exploring how it works and providing a how-to on using it. It uses the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library as home base in the exercise. The writer explores various things that can be done with the site, including ranking counties in order of number of providers offering services of 6 Mbps or more. The map can identify ISP technologies by geography as well.

The early reaction seems to be a surprise at how much of the nation is sans broadband. PopSci put it this way:

It also throws into sharp relief the fact that much of the country lacks broadband. Major population centers, like the Northeast Corridor, Chicagoland, Bay Area, Pacific Northwest, and Los Angeles-San Diego are blanketed, but much of the west, and even much of the southeast, are spotty at best.

Engadget had much the same reaction:

In terms of the maps' content, we're still seeing unsatisfactorily wide swathes of broadband-free countryside, but we suppose the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one.

In retrospect, it's understandable that people are taken aback by how wide the areas are that are underserved: Most of the media is in the areas that have great service. This, if for no other reason, makes the Broadband Map a good start, since the most important step of solving a problem is to understand precisely what it is.

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