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March 31, 2009 11:19 AM

It'd Be Irresponsible To Not Map Demand and Track Usage

Earlier this week I attended the public NTIA/RUS meeting during which they had a panel on the broadband mapping portion of the stimulus.

While right at the very outset I found it odd that this panel was missing any representatives from Connected Nation, BroadbandCensus.com, and e-NC as these are three of the leaders in pushing for mapping broadband, even more upsetting was what was said on this panel, or rather what wasn't said.

Throughout the entire series of presentations and subsequent roundtable discussions and Q&A; there was not one word about mapping market demand for broadband or tracking the actual usage of broadband.

OK, that's not entirely true: I stood up and tried asking questions about these issues so it was brought up but no substantive answers were received.

And to be honest, I think that's totally insane. Let's consider the value of conducting both exercises.

First, mapping market demand. Rather than just finding out where broadband's available and where it isn't, it's essential that we also know where there are people who want it but can't get it. If I'm the government and I'm trying to define "underserved" then it makes a lot of sense to be able to compare the availability of broadband relative to the demand for it so that we can identify those areas where the market alone is not serving this demand. Without this market demand data we could end up subsidizing network buildouts to areas that don't currently want it, and that doesn't seem like the most prudent use of limited government dollars.

Second, tracking actual usage. What good will funding programs that spur demand be if we don't have a way of measuring whether or not they were successful at getting people to use broadband more? In fact, not only is tracking usage a good idea, but I'd argue that it should be mandatory for all broadband demand programs. We first need to establish a baseline for how people, businesses, and public entities are using broadband so we can have something to compare future results of these surveys against to gauge the growth in demand. Not doing this means risking government dollars on programs with no metrics to measure success, and that seems like a very irresponsible thing to be doing.

Now I should admit that it's not like no one's talking about mapping demand or tracking usage. There is some language to this affect in S. 1492, the broadband mapping bill. But it was startling to sit through a half dozen presentations without anyone talking about anything other than mapping the availability of broadband.

This omission suggests that we're still not thinking seriously about these separate but related issues, that we're still putting mapping the availability of broadband as a higher priority than demand or usage. And yet what good are availability-only maps?

So you know where broadband is and isn't: now what? Should we just start throwing dollars to build out to areas without it, or would it be better to focus first on those areas without it that have a proven pent-up demand for it?

And back to usage, what good is having broadband available if nobody's using it? It's been proven repeatedly that simply building it and expecting people to come doesn't necessarily work. We need sustainable programs to educate and inspire users, yet without hard data about what has worked and is working we won't be able to focus our energy and financial support on the most effective programs. It's not good enough to say we're trying to spur demand, we need to show that we're actually increasing usage.

So for these reasons I'm a little concerned that we're not putting demand mapping and usage tracking as a high enough priority relative to the broadband mapping and demand programs in the stimulus package.

I'd suggest that the NTIA should make their support of these efforts explicit and integral to any applications that want to be approved to map broadband or spur demand. Because without these two key pieces to the puzzle, we're likely going to end up with maps to nowhere and demand programs that fizzle out.

If we want to get serious about broadband, we have to get serious about collecting as much hard data as possible, and key to this is that data related to demand and usage.

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