The Alabama Broadband Initiative (ALBI) and rural broadband in general has been in the news the past week.
Update: I just had a quick phone conversation with Commissioner Ron Sparks and he still has concerns about the direction of the project and the availability of information from telecoms and ISPs. (GOOD. So do I!) We’re going to do a longer, more in depth interview soon and I’ll put it in a separate post
Vice President Biden unveiled the $7.2 billion Broadband Economic Stimulus funding:
The NTIA will dole out $4.5 billion in government funds to help deliver broadband (feebly defined as 768kbps downstream and 200kbps upstream) into under or unserved areas. Another $2.5 billion will be handed out by the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) grant program, which for some time has been tasked with giving loans to markets where 75% of the area is rural without sufficient broadband access.
And ALBI director, Kathy Johnson, announced the launch of the ConnectingAlabama Web site. The Connecting Alabama’s stated purpose is to create broadband maps of the state to show who does and doesn’t have service and to work with local government to expand/improve broadband access in all 67 Alabama counties.
The most important step is creation of the broadband maps. You may recall that CostQuest, an Ohio company, received a $1.7 million contract to develop this map even as some in the state – notably Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks – questioned the effort’s cost, goals, speed, and affordability.
What might we get – or not – from this map? It depends on whether they follow the model set by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) broadband mapping and whether the ALBI is more interested in protecting consumers or the telecom industry.
Pay attention, kids… we’re spending millions in Alabama and billions nationwide. And so far, the whole effort is looking like a sweet deal/protection racket for telecom companies – not a benefit for consumers.
We already know that Telecoms have more protection than consumers in Alabama – thanks to the Alabama Legislature stripping the Public Service Commission of any regulatory or oversight authority.
Unfortunately, a visit to the Frequently Asked Questions page (in PDF format – WHY???) at ConnectingAlabama.com seems to indicate that the ALBI has the same submissive attitude toward industry:
The service maps are also an excellent first step in engaging all providers across the state in a joint effort to identify and solve an issue that is far larger than any one of them.
The ConnectingALABAMA approach takes great care to develop the maps in a way that protects the valuable business information enjoyed by each of the service providers.
Wow! an “issue far larger than any one of them.” Who would have thought that Broadband access is such an intractable problem? Sounds like it’s as hard to solve as poverty, racism, or immigration…
But thank goodness! The telecom’s valuable business information will be protected. How is it possible to do that and produce a broadband map that’s in any way useful?
First, let’s revisit just WHY the PSC doesn’t already have broadband access information.
The service area and service level of telecommunication companies is considered “proprietary information” in Alabama and many other states. They assert it would “adversely impact” their competitiveness if they were forced to share that data.
The ISP’s don’t want accurate broadband data disseminated to the public. There’s no mystery about who covers which area and who doesn’t – at least not if you’re a telecom company
Even the Federal Trade Commission maps are substandard, to say the least. They’re broken out by ZIP code and if only one household in a ZIP code has broadband, then the whole ZIP code area is colored as “covered.” This is wrongheaded and ineffective in my opinion – and according to the General Accounting Office! (PDF again – darn it!)
“For its zip-code level data, the FCC collects data based on where subscribers are served, not where providers have deployed broadband infrastructure,” the report notes. “Although it is clear that the deployment of broadband networks is extensive, the data may not provide a highly accurate depiction of local broadband infrastructures for residential service, especially in rural areas.”
Once again, our tax dollars at work.
In February, the New York Times tech columnist asked why we’re spending $350 million to map broadband.
After all, can’t pretty much any Internet provider tell you over the phone or on its Web site whether it offers service? Of course it can. But that doesn’t mean it will give the same information to the government.
In many states that have surveyed broadband use, the cable and phone companies declined to provide some of the information that was requested. And in most cases, when the companies did provide data, they demanded it be kept confidential. That meant that while the broadband maps accurately identified areas that lacked fast Internet service, they typically couldn’t be used by anyone who wanted to tell what services were available at what speeds and prices.
Am I missing something, or doesn’t this sound just like the situation that ConnectingAlabama is offering with their promise to protect “valuable business information?”
As the NYT points out, we’re getting ready to spend quite a bit to subsidize broadband. Who will benefit most? It should be consumers, but I have a sinking feeling that this is going to be nothing more than a gravy train for telecoms.
At least it’s shaping up that way in Alabama. Ms. Johnson, the ALBI director, is also the wife of Republican gubernatorial candidate and ADECA director, Bill Johnson. I wonder if he’ll discuss this effort during the campaign. In any case, I don’t expect him to criticize the job his wife is doing – so no help from that candidate….
And recall that Agriculture Commissioner, Ron Sparks, has already expressed concerns. Since it primarily affects rural areas, I expect his campaign to discuss this issue as well. I contacted his office for his views on the status of the ALBI project and will blog about that when I get a response.
Congressman Artur Davis has told LIA that he’s studying the issue – including the role of the PSC in consumer protection. He’s promised to call us first when he has a statement, and probably will – after 3 interviews where i pressed him on the issue, he knows it’s on the LIA radar.
We’ll be following this effort – and discussing the candidates’ positions on the issue throughout the 2010 election.
Broadband isn’t just the government giving some luxury service to a bunch of hayseed farmers. It’s the key to economic development in rural areas. They can attract better industries than landfills and also keep population levels stable as telecommuting and working at home becomes a workable option.
The Broadband stimulus funding could be money well spent – if it’s done right.