$100M-plus Broadband Map Runs into Cost Questions

stimulusmoney

The national stimulus package passed by Congress in February may have been too enthusiastic about spending money on one particular project: figuring out where broadband Internet access is available and how fast it is.

The $787 billion stimulus bill championed by the Obama administration set aside up to $350 million to create a national broadband map that could guide policies aimed at expanding high-speed Internet access. That $350 million tag struck some people in the telecommunications industry as excessive, compared with existing, smaller efforts. The map won’t even be done in time to help decide where to spend much of the $7.2 billion in stimulus money earmarked for broadband programs.

Now it appears the final cost won’t be as high as $350 million — though just how much it will be is unclear.

To ensure the mapping money is used “in a fiscally prudent manner,” the National Telecommunications and Information Administration signaled Wednesday it would initially spend more than $100 million, and then reassess the program.

The agency, which is part of the Commerce Department, said it has received requests for $107 million in funding for projects that would map broadband in individual states over the first two years. The states want another $26 million for various purposes over five years, including steps to encourage broadband demand. On top of that, the NTIA will have to spend more money to collate the statewide maps into a national one.

But while the map should run much less than the $350 million cap set by Congress, the total still looks like it will be far higher than estimates based on the costs of smaller mapping programs in individual states.

In North Carolina, for instance, state broadband authority e-NC spends at most $275,000 per year on maintaining a map of broadband availability in the state, detailed enough to list individual addresses, according to executive director Jane Smith Patterson.

Rory Altman, director at telecommunications consulting firm Altman Vilandrie & Co., which has helped clients map broadband availability in some areas, said $350 million was a “ridiculous” amount of money to spend on a national broadband map.

Even $100 million might be high. The firm could create a national broadband map for $3.5 million, and “would gladly do it for $35 million,” Altman said.

Dave Burstein, editor of the DSL Prime broadband industry newsletter, believes a reasonable cost for the map would be less than $30 million.

The map should reveal what most individuals already know: whether their homes can get broadband, and how fast it is. Officially, the goal for the map is to help shape broadband policy and determine where best to invest government funds. It may also help consumers shopping for Internet service.

However, the map won’t be ready in time to influence the first round of broadband grants and loans funded by the stimulus package. That money will start going out this fall. And the map likely won’t be finished before February’s scheduled release of a national broadband plan being developed by the Federal Communications Commission, which is also mandated by the stimulus bill.

About two-thirds of U.S. homes already have broadband. It’s available to many more, perhaps 90 percent of homes, but the figure is uncertain because of the lack of authoritative nationwide studies. The cable industry alone says it covers 92 percent of U.S. households.

When the Pew Internet and American Life Project surveyed people who didn’t have broadband in 2007 and 2008, it found that most of them aren’t interested in it, find the Internet too hard to use, or don’t have computers. Lack of available broadband was the third most common reason.

Still, there is concern that the U.S. is falling behind other countries in the reach and speed of its Internet connections, and that this might hinder economic growth. Advocates of expanding broadband also worry that some rural areas might never get high-speed Internet because service providers don’t see a payoff in extending their lines there.

Identifying those areas will be a major thrust of the mapping project. The maps will show broadband availability, type (phone or cable, for example) and speeds for each small cluster of homes, roughly equivalent to a city block in urban areas.

Each state’s grant for mapping will go to either a nonprofit or a government agency. Internet service providers have already committed to handing over data about where they have broadband coverage, so the main job will be to collect and translate that information into a map.

Mark Seifert, who is overseeing the broadband grant and mapping programs at the NTIA, offers several reasons why the federal government may spend proportionally more on mapping than some states. For one thing, he said, most efforts that have been done in states have focused on so-called “last-mile” connections that link homes and businesses with the broader infrastructure of the Internet. The NTIA also wants extensive data on that behind-the-scenes Internet infrastructure.

What’s more, since much of the mapping data will come from phone and cable companies, the NTIA wants the information to be independently verified — which could involve knocking on doors to confirm where broadband is and is not available and conducting other on-the-ground checks.

“You can spend less money on a map … but you get what you pay for,” he said. “Data costs money.”

Although the map will not be done in time to guide this round of broadband funding in the stimulus package, it could prove useful for later broadband deployment programs. And it could help set priorities in the years ahead for huge federal programs such as the Universal Service Fund and the Rural Utilities Service, which spend billions of dollars annually to subsidize telecom services.

In addition to the NTIA’s mapping project, there’s a parallel push at the FCC to gather more detailed data on broadband subscribers. Both efforts are designed to aid the Obama administration’s goal of “data-driven decision making” in setting telecom policy, said Colin Crowell, a senior counselor to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

“There is a voracious appetite for all kinds of broadband data,” said Crowell, who helped write the broadband mapping legislation as a staffer on a House subcommittee overseeing telecommunications. “Policymakers have been wringing their hands for several years that we don’t have accurate data on broadband deployment and adoption.”

Home Theater

Cord-cutting has grown by 48 percent in 8 years, according to Nielsen

People are continuing to ditch cable but not all cord-cutters are the same. In fact, there are two distinct groups within the cord-cutting universe, with a very small, yet growing third group that's worth paying attention to.
Home Theater

Cutting the cord? Let us help you find the best service for live TV streaming

There's a long list of live TV streaming services available to help you cut the cord and replace your traditional TV subscription. Each is different in important ways, and this guide will help you find the best one for you.
Emerging Tech

Drones: New rules could soon allow flights over people and at night

With commercial operators in mind, the U.S. government is looking to loosen restrictions on drone flights with a set of proposals that would allow the machines greater freedom to fly over populated areas and also at night.
Deals

Best tax software deals from TurboTax, H&R Block, and more

Do you dread doing your taxes? Luckily for you, there are plenty of tax software options available to guide you through the process. And guess what? Some of them are even on sale today! Check out deals from TurboTax, H&R Block, and…
Computing

Faster new PCIe 5.0 standard leapfrogs the best feature of AMD’s Ryzen 3

PCIe 5.0 will bring even faster data transfers, but it may only be found on HPCs and servers initially. The standard is four times faster than your current PC at transferring data, and new devices could appear later this year.
Deals

From Chromebooks to MacBooks, here are the best laptop deals for January 2019

Whether you need a new laptop for school or work or you're just doing some post-holiday shopping, we've got you covered: These are the best laptop deals going right now, from discounted MacBooks to on-the-go gaming PCs.
Product Review

LG Gram 14 proves 2-in-1 laptops don’t need to sacrifice battery for light weight

The LG Gram 14 2-in-1 aims to be very light for a laptop that converts to a tablet. And it is. But it doesn’t skimp on the battery, and so it lasts a very long time on a charge.
Computing

Keep your laptop battery in tip-top condition with these handy tips

Learn how to care for your laptop's battery, how it works, and what you can do to make sure yours last for years and retains its charge. Check out our handy guide for valuable tips, no matter what type of laptop you have.
Computing

Protect your expensive new laptop with the best Macbook cases

If you recently picked up a new MacBook, you’ll want something to protect its gorgeous exterior. Here, we've gathered the best MacBook cases and covers, whether you're looking for style or protection.
Computing

Watch out for these top-10 mistakes people make when buying a laptop

Buying a new laptop is exciting, but you need to watch your footing. There are a number of pitfalls you need to avoid and we're here to help. Check out these top-10 laptop buying mistakes and how to avoid them.
Computing

Don't spend a fortune on a PC. These are the best laptops under $300

Buying a laptop needn't mean spending a fortune. If you're just looking to browse the internet, answer emails, and watch Netflix, you can pick up a great laptop at a great price. These are the best laptops under $300.
Computing

Dell XPS 13 vs. Asus Zenbook 13: In battle of champions, who will be the victor?

The ZenBook 13 UX333 continues Asus's tradition of offering great budget-oriented 13-inch laptop offerings. Does this affordable machine offer enough value to compete with the excellent Dell XPS 13?
Gaming

Take a trip to a new virtual world with one of these awesome HTC Vive games

So you’re considering an HTC Vive, but don't know which games to get? Our list of 25 of the best HTC Vive games will help you out, whether you're into rhythm-based gaming, interstellar dogfights, or something else entirely.
Computing

The Asus ZenBook 13 offers more value and performance than Apple's MacBook Air

The Asus ZenBook 13 UX333 is the latest in that company's excellent "budget" laptop line, and it looks and feels better than ever. How does it compare to Apple's latest MacBook Air?