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A user-generated mapping database for broadband would help the Federal Communications Commission make more informed policy decisions about broadband, according to the Information Technology Innovation Forum.
ITIF, a non-profit public technology policy think tank, has proposed improvements for collecting information on broadband speeds, use and deployment. The group -- which is funded by technology companies including Cisco, IBM and Microsoft -- suggested the database in response to an FCC plan to improve wireless broadband (PDF) and VoIP subscription data and evaluate advanced broadband deployment in the United States.
The FCC put out a call for comments on how it can deepen and refine its understanding of broadband availability and deployment, as well as the role wireless technologies can play in affording all Americans broadband Internet access.
"The Commission has consistently recognized the critical importance of broadband services to the nation's present and future prosperity and is committed to adopting policies to promote the development of broadband services, including broadband Internet access services," the FCC wrote in a proposed rule-making notice.
The ITIF argues that a user-generated map would encourage public participation and generate precise local broadband data. The group recommends the creation of a Web site where consumers can automatically test broadband connection speeds and enter that information with other details like their location and monthly costs.
"With the help of mapping technology such as that offered by Google Maps, the resulting proliferation of data points could very quickly yield a nationwide picture of local broadband deployment, prices and speeds," ITIF said through a prepared statement. "Unfortunately, the Federal Communication Commission's nationwide broadband data suffers from some well-documented limitations. The data available at the local level is insufficient for policymakers to make informed decisions, and there is evidence that the reported data is not always accurate."
The FCC acknowledged difficulty in gaining information about broadband deployment, especially in rural and "other hard-to-serve areas, including tribal lands."
A user-generated mapping database could compliment and verify existing data collection methods, ITIF said, adding that current information is flawed in at least one more way. Recent reports from South Dakota indicate 2.5 broadband lines per business in that state.
"One promising and economical alternative would employ an open-source model to obtain penetration, speed and price data in a bottom-up fashion," the ITIF stated in its written comments. "To accomplish this, the Commission or the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) would oversee the administration of a Web site where consumers could automatically test the speed of their broadband connection and enter additional information, including their location and their monthly broadband cost."
Though there are several sites where users can test their connection speeds and some plot the information on maps, that information should be combined with price information and made publicly available, according to the ITIF. The FCC site could aggregate data from those sites or rely solely upon information entered into its own site, ITIF said.
"All the individual and aggregate data in the database would also be accessible on the World Wide Web via user query," ITIF explained. "To ensure anonymity, participants' street block, rather than their actual street address, would show up in the database and on the map. Only those users who opted to share their street address would have their addresses revealed."
ITIF said the FCC's proposed rule changes are an important step in the path toward improved broadband deployment. It recommends splitting the lowest speed category for data collection into two tiers: one for speeds of 200kbps to 1 mbps and another for 1 mbps to 2 mbps. The group said the FCC should also collect state level data for an evolving "robust broadband" speed standard, in addition to the existing 200 kbps standard, and consider collecting and reporting data down to the zip code level.
Currently, broadband providers report subscriber data (for five speed tiers) twice annually. Providers are only required to report whether they have subscribers in a particular zip code. That means a zip code with one subscriber is reported the same way that a zip code area with 100% penetration would be reported.
That information is aggregated and reported by the FCC at a national level, making it very difficult to get a clear picture of which local areas suffer from lack of high-speed access. It also clouds the national picture.