Mapping the areas where Americans have access to various broadband internet services and making this information publicly available are key steps in closing the digital divide, said attendees of a Sept. 26 broadband policy summit held in Washington, D.C.–yet current federal policies prohibit the release of this information.
Affordable broadband access for all Americans will open up opportunities for education and economic development that currently aren’t available to all citizens, participants said. To help meet this goal, about 50 policy makers and broadband experts met during the Broadband Census for America Conference to discuss ways to better collect and share public data about broadband connections throughout the country.
"The purpose of this conference is to discuss approaches to broadband mapping," said Drew Clark, executive director of BroadbandCensus.com, one of the conference’s sponsors.
Kenneth Flamm, professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said people need to recognize that broadband access is a key piece of public infrastructure.
"Broadband infrastructure will become an essential part of the economic structure," he said, adding that fast internet connections are a "quality-of-life" issue.
Rachelle Chong of the California State Public Utilities Commission said California is lucky in that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has agreed with the need for broadband expansion.
"He understood that if you don’t have broadband, you’re not going to have state-of-the-art economic development," she said.
The utilities commission, she explained, had to convince policy makers that broadband access is a necessary piece of infrastructure.
"If you let it wane, citizens are disadvantaged when they get their education," she said, noting that providers tend to invest in urban areas but not in disadvantaged areas of California. "We want to ensure that no child is left behind because of the digital divide."
Chong said she was able to get the state’s two major broadband providers to share their information with the California Broadband Task Force so it could map broadband availability in the state, and the commission then could begin to develop a plan to address unserved and underserved areas. It took some persuasion to get this information, she noted–but once the providers pooled their data, such cooperation allowed them to determine where to target their marketing and rollout efforts for the future.
The task force found that 96 percent of California households had some kind of broadband availability, with broadband being used in 65 percent of homes. Chong said California leads the country in broadband availability.
Other organizations have not been as successful in collecting data. Clark said the Federal Communications Commission collects information on broadband availability from internet providers, but it does not share this information with the public. He said attempts to get this information through Freedom of Information Act requests are denied because of an exemption in the law that states the data can remain private if they are likely to cause competitive harm.
Clark said having disclosure and transparency among broadband carriers would serve the public in the same way that having access to public land and housing records does.
"If I’m moving, I can look and see what houses in a certain area are worth. We need [similar access to broadband data, to encourage] competition in broadband and to keep tabs on prices," he said.
A system like the one Clark calls for has been achieved in Ireland, where there is a government-run web site that provides consumers with information about broadband access–including where it’s available, how fast it is, how much it costs, and what the benefits of having it are.
"The providers see [giving this information to] the government … as free advertising, so it’s a win-win for companies and consumers," said Eamonn Confrey, first secretary of information and communications at the Embassy of Ireland. "Now we’re witnessing lower costs, an increase in use, and an increase in competition."
Note to readers:
Don’t forget to visit the “Creating the 21 st Century Classroom” resource center. Preparing today’s youth to succeed in the digital economy requires a new kind of teaching and learning. Skills such as global literacy, computer literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and innovation have become critical in today’s increasingly interconnected workforce and society–and technology is the catalyst for bringing these changes into the classroom. Go to Creating-the-21st-century-classroom