Friday, February 18, 2011

The National Broadband Map: For $200M, Why Can't They Get It Right?

The National Broadband Map should be called "The National Airport Map." The government clearly put in a lot more work identifying airports than broadband service providers and accurate broadband speeds. 

Last summer, I got really angry about the Iowa Broadband Map because it was pretty inaccurate by my observations. However, the mapping tools were actually kind of cool and easy to use, and highly detailed when you zoomed in close. I had really low expectations for the National Broadband Map that is costing this country over $200 million. By contrast, the proposed Mobility Fund is planning to spend $100-300 million to build extensive wireless broadband infrastructure. This is a really, really expensive map.

It is also strange, hard to use, and inaccurate. I like the Iowa map because they at least use different colors for different broadband technologies, but the National map just uses one color which kind of defeats the whole purpose if you care about finding a wireless vs. wired connection. With the Iowa map, you could layer the different broadband technologies and see where they overlap and where gaps exist, but this map just looks like a blue blob when you layer the technologies. Not to brag, but I am an extremely good map reader, so I feel sorry for the less map-inclined individuals who are trying to figure this thing out. It takes a long time to load the data (even though it says my connection is 3-6 Mbps), and the whole application is just clumsy and frustrating. For $200 million, I would expect this map to pay my bills and give me compliments, but it doesn't do anything special.

Second, the data is wrong. I'm not saying it is wrong everywhere, but it is wrong for a large chunk of land in Iowa, covering 7 small communities. Walnut Telephone Company is not listed as a service provider in Walnut, Iowa, or in 5 of the 7 communities that it provides broadband service. Interestingly, a rural provider from a town about 25 miles away from Walnut is listed as the primary broadband provider in Walnut, which is completely wrong. This company has invested significant amounts of money in FTTH, which is not recognized by this map at all. In fact, there is basically no FTTH at all in the whole country which I find highly suspicious--I know it is not the dominant technology, but there has to be more than what is shown on the map. It would also be nice for the map to identify FTTH networks under development, but I realize this is a lot to ask for with $200 M. I plan to spend more time on this map and see what other inaccuracies that I can find, but if anyone knows of any more I would like to hear about it.

Third, I have concluded that Verizon Wireless is in cahoots with the broadband map makers. Verizon somehow has 3-6 Mbps service everywhere. Many people do not understand that coverage and service are not the same, and if these maps are supposed to help people make decisions about broadband service providers then some people may be sorely disappointed when their "3-6 Mbps" Verizon service can barely get one bar of mobile voice service in a rural area.

Finally, and most entertaining, the National Broadband Map should really be called the National Airport Map. I think someone got confused when they were developing the map, because there was clearly a lot more effort put into naming nonexistent airports than finding out actual broadband speeds and getting the right service providers assigned to the right zip codes. The map does not list the names of towns or counties, but rather the names of airports until you zoom in really far on a specific location. Why would they list the names of airports that probably consist of a garage, a crop duster and a driveway in a field, but not the names of towns? Why would someone literally spend time finding these unused airports but not get the broadband data correct? So many questions... So few answers.

I tried to copy some screen grabs of the map to post here, but of course that wasn't possible. Please take a few minutes to explore the map here: If the broadband data (service provider, speeds, coverage geography, etc.) in your area is inaccurate, contact the FCC or NTIA. There is a link to leave feedback on the main page of the map. If you found inaccurate data for your service area, I would like to hear about it as well! 

Happy mapping!
Cassandra Heyne 

Update: I tried to leave feedback but when I submitted my comments, they were either deleted or rejected somehow. Thanks, FCC and NTIA! I'm so happy that my feedback is important to you! So important that I can't even submit it!

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