Who will map U.S. broadband?

An industry-dominated company — “Connected Nation” — raises red flags

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There’s a $350 million slice of pie in President Obama’s stimulus plan that watchdog groups are starting to eye with concern. At stake is the question of who will control the process of mapping the penetration of broadband access across the U.S.

In recent years, even as development of broadband access in the United States has flagged — its standing has now dropped to 15th globally — attempts to accurately measure broadband penetration have sputtered. The Federal Communications Commission’s data collection has been flawed, and what’s more, inaccessible. (In 2006, the Center for Public Integrity filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act seeking that information, unsuccessfully, as it turned out…but that’s another story.)

Now, on the heels of last fall’s Broadband Data Improvement Act, Congress is poised to dish out $350 million in stimulus cash to help fund the work of charting gaps in U.S. broadband. Boosted by an array of official accolades, one nonprofit looks especially well-positioned for the job: Connected Nation.

Last July, AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., and other companies issued a letter backing public-private partnerships to collect information about broadband deployment, and referenced Connected Nation’s work in particular. Connected Nation has worked on the state level, as well, to contribute to similar publicly backed mapping efforts for years.

But Connected Nation’s ties to the broadband industry make some critics squeamish about putting the company in charge.

As nonprofits Common Cause, Public Knowledge, and others detail in a new report, industry players heavily populate Connected Nation’s board of directors, including senior executives from Comcast Corp., Verizon, and AT&T. Meanwhile, Connected Nation’s previous state-level mapping initiatives — for example, in North Carolina — have relied extensively on non-disclosure agreements that limit identification of broadband providers and also require that information collected remain corporate property.

The telecom industry has long balked at disclosing information about broadband penetration, citing fear of “competitive harm.” Meanwhile, if data were to reveal that broadband providers were ignoring certain rural and urban communities, that information could prove embarrassing to companies.

Critics charge that Connected Nation’s past mapping projections have been overly rosy. For example, in April 2007, Connected Nation’s CEO, Brian Mefford, told the Senate Commerce Committee that Kentucky was becoming a “national leader in technology acceleration,” and was on track “to be the first state with 100 percent broadband coverage.” By contrast, as Public Knowledge’s Art Brodsky observes, data collected by the broadband consulting Liechtman Research Group found that at the start of 2007, Kentucky ranked 46th in the nation for residential broadband penetration.

At this point, how the $350 million will be divided and administered is an open question. As Brodsky notes, “there’s a bit of chaos right now, and nobody knows how this will work.” Nevertheless, when the National Telecommunications and Information Administration starts to disburse grant money, watchdog groups are clear about who they don’t want endorsing the checks.

Connected Nation did not return phone calls by the time of this posting.

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