Ready, fire, aim: Public broadband grants wait for no plan

Oct. 2, 2009

The government has created a $7.2 billion spending program aimed at providing access to broadband for Americans who have missed out on the benefits of the Internet revolution.

The government has also mandated the creation of a national broadband plan, which will provide recommendations on how to make sure that all Americans have access to high-speed Internet service.

In the real world, planning usually dictates spending. But in Washington, that’s not always the case.

The deadline for applications for those seeking a grant from the broadband spending program was Aug. 14, 2009. The national broadband plan, which is under development at the Federal Communications Commission, isn’t due until Feb. 17, 2010.

The findings and recommendations in the FCC’s plan would no doubt have come in handy for those who sought funding under the broadband grant program – not to mention the government analysts whose job it is to decide who gets the money.

Both the grant program and the mandate for a broadband plan were in President Barack Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus package.

The timing problem stems from the fact that the primary purpose of the stimulus plan was to pump as much money as possible, as quickly as possible, into the U.S. economy – or in the words of the president, to provide a “direct fiscal boost to help lift our nation from the greatest economic crisis in our lifetimes and lay the foundation for future growth.”

Quick-spending seldom equates to careful planning, particularly when it comes to an issue as complex and unstudied as the nation’s access – or lack of access – to high-speed Internet service.

Access to advanced communications services like broadband has been a national goal since Congress rewrote communications law in 1996. Since then, the Internet has gone from being a hobby for geeks and academics to an absolute necessity for students, businesses and government.

Those in society who have access to affordable, fast Internet service have a profound advantage over those who do not. It is in the public interest to determine whether a “digital divide” exists between America’s rich and America’s poor.

But efforts by the FCC to determine how many Americans have access to broadband have been a running joke thanks to the agency’s failure to require Internet providers to provide detailed reports on where they provide access. Inadequate data has kept the government from identifying gaps in broadband coverage.

Until recently, the agency required only that broadband providers report their customer totals by state. The only other geographic determiner was a list of ZIP codes where providers had at least one customer. Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps described the zip code data as “stunningly meaningless.”.

Responding to widespread derision and legislation pending in Congress, the FCC under then-Chairman Kevin Martin did change its ways.

Broadband providers are now required to report the total number of connections they have in each U.S. Census tract. The ideal population of a Census tract is 4,000, which works out to around 1,500 households, depending on where you live. While that’s still not quite “granular” data, to use the latest buzzword, it’s a lot better than before and should give a ballpark estimate on what areas are missing out on broadband service

The first batch of the new and improved data was due to the agency by March 2, 2009. Presumably, this data would go a long way toward pointing out areas of the country that do not have broadband access. It would be particularly useful to those companies that applied for broadband grants.

The public interest group Free Press, which was instrumental in convincing the agency to improve its data-collecting practices, asked the agency to release at least some form of the data prior to the August 14 grant application deadline, but their request was ignored.

The FCC response was in keeping with its historic, dogged determination to keep even the most innocuous broadband data out of public view.

In August 2006, the Center for Public Integrity requested the agency’s broadband data – such as it was – under the Freedom of Information Act. The suit sought the names of providers and the ZIP codes they served. The agency – joined by every major broadband provider and lobbying group – managed to convince a federal court to reject the request.

Why so secret? Could it be that accurate information about the deployment of broadband assets of big providers might reveal some embarrassing facts?

We may never know.

However, the Broadband Data Improvement Act, signed into law in October of last year, may at least get at the “where” of broadband availability if not the “who.”

The act, among other things, requires the FCC to compile a “list of geographical areas” that are not served by any provider of “advanced telecommunications capability” (i.e. broadband). It is also requires the agency to use Census data to determine the population of those areas and the income of those who live there.

The size of the geographical area is not defined. The report is due to Congress on Feb. 3, 2010.