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Connected Nation in Colorado: Rocky Path Ahead for Broadband Mapping

December 14, 2009 ,

Even before the state of Colorado released on Dec. 1 the results of a broadband mapping project conducted by a Connected Nation subsidiary, officials were preparing for a second round of mapping. The problem, according to the state Request for Proposals issued in early November, is that the first mapping product done by Connect Colorado “did not satisfy the requirements” of the federal broadband mapping program.

The first mapping project cost $300,000. The telecom industry contributed $60,000 of that total and the state paid for the rest. On November 30, the day before the state released the Connected Nation results, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced it had awarded Colorado they had received $2.1 million in broadband mapping and planning funds for a second round of broadband mapping. Of that total, $1.6 million would go to mapping and the balance for broadband planning.

The report caused an immediate sensation with the statistic that “Connect Colorado found that 97.53 percent of Colorado households have broadband service available of at least 768 kbps downstream and at least 200 kbps upstream to the end user at the address available.”

Here is how a service is determined to be “available,” according to the report: “Broadband service is considered ‘available’ to an end user at an address if a broadband service provider does, or could, within a typical service interval (7 to 10 business days) without an extraordinary commitment of resources, provision two-way data transmission to and from the internet with speeds of at least 768 kbps downstream and least 200 kbps upstream.”

Even with a proviso in the report that availability was lower in rural areas, Internet service providers, particularly in rural areas, were angry at what they see as the distorted results. The terms of the lengthy disclaimers that Connect Colorado includes with its maps didn't help matters:

“The representations contained herein are for informational purposes only. Best efforts are undertaken to insure the correctness and accuracy of this information. However, all warranties regarding the accuracy of this map and any representations or inferences derived therefrom are hereby expressly disclaimed. Connected Nation and its partners neither assume nor accept any liability for the accuracy of these data. Those relying upon this information assume the risk of loss exclusively for any potential inaccuracy. All errors and omissions brought to the attention of Connected Nation will be promptly corrected.”

Connect also notes on its web site: “This map is not a guarantee of coverage, contains areas of no service, and generally predicts where outdoor coverage is available. Equipment, topography and environment affect service. “

Second Round Improvements?

It’s not at all clear that the second mapping program will be better than the first. State officials said that the second program was needed so soon after the first because the first Connected Nation owned the data, because information from the first one was subject to strict non-disclosure conditions and because speed data was not reported in the go-round.

However, thanks to NTIA, there are still severe restrictions on what information will be made public. And, NTIA also bowed to industry demands that data speed information be watered down from speeds available at each address to a larger, average speed across service territory or franchise area.

State officials who said that speed information wasn’t in the first contract, and so a second mapping exercise was needed, missed some of the charts in the back of lengthy first report, in which speed data is shown, even if in the broadest Connected Nation-esque terms.

The hedge on the speed data from Connect Colorado: “Broadband service speeds are displayed by the highest speed available at a given census block by a broadband service provider. Speed maps are not a depiction of broadband availability or adoption, nor are they necessarily an indicator of the available bandwidth within a given geographic area.”

Colorado state government also wanted to do another mapping round because the mapping market had changed, and there might more potential contractors, John Conley, the executive director of the Colorado Statewide Internet Portal Authority, said. Three companies responded to the first RFP; five did for the second, which should be awarded by mid-month.

Conley said it will be interesting to “compare and contrast” the data from the second mapping project with the first. He noted that he had heard from some in the industry that the Connect Colorado map was “not as precise as some providers would like to see.”

That’s an understatement. Phil Bryson, CEO of Brainstorm Internet in Durango, said he was “completely blown away with the inaccurate representation of our area.” Bryson said: “We know this area really well and the maps they produced seem to be almost fictional.”

Bryson added in an email: “There are so many areas where we know there is absolutely no coverage (we are out there weekly with spectrum analyzers) that they show having 6-10 Mbps available. If I didn't know anything and looked at the maps I would assume that our areas are extremely well covered which is not the case on the ground as we have a significant amount of unserved households and businesses in the rural areas. In think if the unserved, rural populations saw this map there would be a huge outcry.”

Larry Michaels owns a software company, Faster Systems, in Gardner, and he, too, is extremely skeptical of the Connect Colorado map: “I’m not sure where they got their information.” The idea that 97 percent of the state has broadband is “just ridiculous,” Michaels said.

Michaels said in an email: “As I reviewed the map, I noticed that our county (Huerfano) shows that virtually the entire county is serviced by ‘Mobile Wireless Broadband’. I can tell you from personal experience that not only is Mobile Wireless Broadband not generally available, cell service of any kind is not available where I live, nor in the vast majority of the county. Furthermore, even if it were available, it is expensive and relatively slow and not really practical for much beyond rudimentary surfing and e-mail.”

Michaels explained that he depends on the Internet to maintain software and support customers. Because of the paucity of service, he and a couple of partners got together to start their own ISP, Diverse Datum, to provide wireless broadband service. “We are all independent businesses, so frustrated with what they call broadband that we decided to do a better job ourselves,” Michaesl said. The volunteer effort is now serving about 200 customers, getting between 3 Mbps and 7 Mbps upstream and down, Michaels said, adding that his $50 per month service is better than that for established providers, in limited areas in which it overlaps.

Michaels made the case for rural broadband: “Widely available and affordable broadband is becoming a necessity, rather than a luxury. Students without access to broadband at home are at a distinct disadvantage in being able to prepare for college or the working world. With an increasing movement towards telecommuting, rural areas with available broadband become practical alternatives to city living. Internet based business can be run from previously impossible locations.” The broadband standard used in the report, 768 kbps, is “a meaningless standard,” Michaels said.

One rural company produced an overlay map, comparing the Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) coverage claimed in the Connect Colorado report with data that the company collected.

CO DSLv3

The blue dots are telephone company central office switches from which Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) service can be offered. In the upper right corner, some of the central offices are circled, showing the limited range that DSL service has. The blue shaded areas are the areas claimed by providers, reflected in the broadband map, that the service is available. Note the extremely wide areas claimed for service, as opposed to the area which can be covered. They don't match up at all, which means service was being claimed for an area much greater than could be expected.

If claiming that service is more widely available than it actually is were simply an exercise in corporate boosting, then it would be relatively harmless. But it’s not. There are real consequences for policymakers. The over-arching observation is that if a state is considered as having broadband “available” to 97 percent of the population, then there’s no need for a national broadband strategy.

Effects of Mapping on Grants

The more immediate effect of inaccurate broadband maps, however, is that by presenting a distorted picture of deployment and availability, that information can be used against potential interlopers to incumbents, particularly those who have applied for Federal stimulus grants as Bryson and Michaels have.

Michaels noted that, “If you look at the stuff on the BroadbandUSA site run by NTIA, which has the grant information, “everybody is trying to prevent competition from coming in.” Michaels said that the comments for his application claim that incumbents are providing Internet, “which is baloney.” “I looked and almost every one (grant application) has comments from people like AT&T, Qwest, and cable trying to prevent us from getting grant money. The whole thing doesn’t make any sense. It’s kind of frustrating.”

Bryson noted: “It appears the incumbents and larger mobile and cable providers have decided that they weren't going to apply for broadband stimulus because of their unwillingness to share/open up their networks but consequently have adopted the strategy to challenge all rural last mile applications by stating all potential unserved or underserved proposed funded areas are already covered and hence don't qualify for funding. It appears they are doing this by challenging each application and in Colorado's case, providing inflated broadband coverage data to Connected Nations to produce a map that appears to show the state is already covered – which is clearly not the case in our and many other rural areas.”

Those challenges come from the companies that supplied the coverage data to Connected Nation, Bryson said. He said that objections lodged by Qwest, Century Telephone, Bresnan and others are simply inaccurate, as the companies claim larger service areas than they actually serve. Those companies provide service in densely populated areas, but not in the large, rural areas with traditionally under-served and unserved populations, he added.

As Connected Nation and its state franchises try to cope with all of the mapping they will be required to do, the organization which sold itself as the expert group is now advertising for help. The response to the ad, posted on the Connected Nation Web site, which displays the symbol of the Federal recovery program, will depend in large part on some of the terms and conditions included in the RFP.

For example, any mapping professional who wants to work for Connected Nation is free to do so, but also can’t work with, or for, another mapping company for three years. Here’s the key restriction, with the Vendor meaning the person or company which goes to work for Connected Nation:

“Vendor recognizes and acknowledges that by virtue of accepting the terms of this Contract, Vendor will acquire valuable knowledge, skills and experience, and learn proprietary and in some cases confidential information of Client.
“Therefore, Vendor shall not engage any persons, firms, Client employees, Client third?party contractors or any other persons or entities with the same or substantially similar ongoing business affairs of Client, broadband mapping, for a period of three (3) years after the conclusion or termination of this Contract, whichever comes first.”

Such terms, if accepted, could well freeze the competition. In a larger sense, that's one of the goals of the companies that Connected Nation serves to protect. They are well on their way to achieving their goals, as NTIA has given out several grants to Connected Nation affiliates.