$300 Million And All I Got Was This Lousy Broadband Map

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After endless hand wringing over the purpose and process of the national broadband mapping effort, we finally have some results to consider. Released last week, the National Broadband Map is the culmination of $300 million worth of investment and more than a year's work by all 50 states.

So what fruits have all this labor born? A pretty map with some basic features that falls way short of what our country needs.

When you first get into the map things look kind of nice. The site's reasonably well laid out, the results of searching for broadband availability at your address appear robust, and everything seems to fit together nicely. But the story changes as you drill down into things.

For starters, the performance of the site is inconsistent. Pages can take a while to load and searches don't always run right. This likely has at least something to do with too many people trying to use it at the same time, but it's still a frustration I'm likely not alone in having.

In terms of the data itself, it's hard not to feel like it's really incomplete and somewhat inaccurate.

Right off the bat you'll notice that they don't seem to distinguish between business vs. residential broadband. There's also no discussion of shared vs. dedicated bandwidth. They do distinguish between "wired" and "wireless" but there's no mention of a distinction between fixed and mobile wireless broadband. So it's hard to get a handle on what they even mean by "broadband" in terms of what the map's supposed to be showing.

Then when I type in my address in Lafayette the results I get raise even more questions. For example, they cite "Lafayette City Parish Consolidated Government" as a provider (when it should be LUSFiber) but the only services they cite are 100Mbps-1Gbps. In actuality, the highest residential service LUSFiber offers is 50Mbps, though you can get a 100Mbps service, and the only 1Gbps service they offer is on their dedicated carrier-class network, not their shared residential network. So here's a specific example of how the map seems to be confusing business vs. residential broadband.

I also wonder why the map doesn't list all the service tiers for each provider. What good is knowing the top speed available if I don't require that much bandwidth? Why couldn't this map have shown each level of service?

Making matters worse is the next listing that appears is Cox Communications offering 50-100Mbps. I just checked their site and the fastest residential service Cox offers is 50Mbps, yet I know they offer business service at speeds beyond 100Mbps. So how'd the map come up with this range of 50-100Mbps?

The listing for AT&T; cites a range from 6-10Mbps. Again I check the provider's site, and again I find the same discrepancy: the top service they're advertising at my address is 6Mbps, and I don't know where the 10Mbps is coming from.

Confusing me even further is that they included a company called Xfone in the listings that I've never heard of before. I've tried to find out if they offer me service online but it's not entirely clear on their site if they do. I had thought they were likely riding AT&T;'s DSL line to do this as I don't think they have any significant network infrastructure in town, especially in residential areas, but they list Xfone's service as being available at 10-25Mbps. Also if they were riding AT&T;'s DSL pipes then there are likely others that should be listed here as well.

One of the most upsetting things about these results is that they bury information about upload capacity. The main results page doesn't even acknowledge that there's a distinction to be made. It's only once you click on a provider you get to see what that upload capacity is. It's as if they don't think upload capacity is all that important. And yet again I'm finding inconsistencies between the data in this map and that available on providers' public websites.

Another missing piece of information is something that many others have already pointed out, namely the lack of any data about the price of service. The map's tagline is "How connected is my community?" but you can't answer that question fully without knowing how expensive service is. Some providers could claim they offer 1Gbps to every building, but if the service is too expensive for anyone to afford can we really claim that community's connected?

And, not surprisingly given the many other missing data points, there's no mention of usage restrictions or bandwidth caps with any of these services, which can make a dramatic difference as to how consumers can actually use these pipes.

While there are more shortcomings I can cite in other areas of the map (like why don't they have links back to the sites of providers?!), the question that I keep coming back to is: what's the point of this map?

Do we want it to be able to inform policymakers about if their communities are served by broadband? Well it fails at that by leaving out price, downplaying upload capacity, and relying on questionable data.

Do we want it to be able to inform consumers to make better broadband decisions to create a more robust broadband marketplace? Well it fails there too by leaving out price, downplaying upload capacity, and any information about usage restrictions.

The harsh reality of this map is that we've spent $300 million in taxpayer dollars on a map that at best really only shows what top-end speeds broadband providers are claiming they can deliver.

With no distinction between business and residential, no discussion of shared vs. dedicated, no mention of usage restrictions and bandwidth caps, nothing about the cost of service in total and per Mbps, all the focus being on advertised speeds vs. actual speeds being realized by customers, and no effort made to tout the importance of upload capacity, I'm really not sure what the point of this whole exercise was.

Hopefully future iterations of this map can address these shortcomings, but in the meantime I think the best we can hope to get out of this map is to have at least a little more insight into the areas of the country with no service, and to have a straw man to beat on when it comes to what not to do when trying to build a national broadband map.

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This page contains a single entry by Geoff Daily published on February 23, 2011 2:54 PM.

Netflix Proves America's Broadband Inadequacies was the previous entry in this blog.

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