National Broadband Map Crippled by Data Flaws

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2011-02-18

National Broadband Map Crippled by Data Flaws

As you learn to expect when a segment of the U.S. government produces something that involves technology more advanced than a light bulb and also is visible if not tangible, we got a lot of hoopla about the National Broadband Map.  

This is a service that is supposed to let you search for broadband in your area, and have it tell you what broadband providers you have a choice of. You can also view a map of the continental United States with blue splotches indicating broadband availability. You can see this map by clicking on a button on the main page or by going directly to the map page. 

By using this map to examine broadband deployment in the United States, I learned a number of critical facts. First, according to the address search, I have broadband available from two providers at speeds of 50M to 100M bps, as of last June. I also learned that California apparently has no broadband at all. In fact, according to the map, California exists only in theory and most of the Midwest and South Central United States is vacant of everything including state borders. 

The fact that there is no broadband in California at all may come as a surprise to a lot of people in the San Francisco area, the nexus of the nation's Internet infrastructure, who think they have broadband, but it might also explain a lot. For example, it's a common belief in the country's heartland that people on the West Coast are out of touch with the rest of America. But since the map indicates that California and the Midwest are both bereft of broadband of any sort, perhaps they're both out of touch with the rest of the United States.

Regardless of whether California is out of touch, I do know that it has broadband, at least in the places I've visited in the Bay Area. I haven't been to the rest of California in recent memory, so I can't speak for that, but the problem is obviously that the multimillion-dollar National Broadband Map is broken. It simply does not function as it should. 

Worse, when you type in your address to find out about your broadband, the results aren't necessarily reliable. You know that 50M- to 100M-bps broadband I allegedly have here in suburban Washington, D.C.? It's pure fantasy. Even with the most expensive broadband available to consumers in this area the best you can do is 20M bps, and that's only when the bits are headed downhill and they have a tailwind. 

Map Does Nothing to Promote U.S. Broadband Expansion


Consumer groups have claimed that the map would prove that the broadband providers are gaming the system. I'm not sure what they have in mind. But you'd think they'd find a way to deliver the map in its entirety if someone wanted to prove there was broadband gaming going on. So now we're presented with a map that doesn't work (I've been trying for a while, so it seems that it's actually broken) and information that is, at least, highly suspect. 

So what should the National Broadband Map be showing if it actually worked? Well you'd probably find out that California both exists and has broadband and that the center of the U.S. has at least some broadband. But you'd also find that broadband coverage is focused on population centers. You'd expect to find broadband in Chicago and Houston, for example, but you should also be able to find it in rural farming communities, and it's simply not there. In fact, according to information that the NTIA distributed with the announcement, about 10 percent of the United States is without any broadband access at all. For them, it's analog dial-up or nothing. 

It's this lack of any access to broadband that the FCC is trying to fix and to which the National Broadband Plan is a solution. There are enough studies that show the impact of being without broadband access in a digital world to make it clear that these communities are disadvantaged in ways that simply wanting to be competitive can't fix. 

In a way, it's akin to being without telephones or electricity, but those issues were obvious enough that Congress launched rural electrification in the '30s and universal telephone access after World War II. Unfortunately, access to broadband has become as critical as access to a telephone, and communities that don't have it suffer. 

Solving the problem with broadband requires actual information, a commodity that isn't always appreciated here in Washington. The National Broadband Map, along with its ability to search for addresses and research the existing data, is supposed to do that. But when you can't trust the data and you can't see the map, what good is it? 

The answer is that perhaps someone at the NTIA will notice that their much-ballyhooed map is useless in its current form and then fix it. Perhaps they'll also correct the clearly flawed data. Meanwhile, it's supposed to be updated every six months, so come August, perhaps we'll know for sure whether California has broadband and maybe we'll even find out if Alaska and Hawaii are part of the United States.


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