Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Map Is Not the Territory

There's been quite a bit of acrimony in the recent debate over the FCC's soon-to-be-released rules for a national broadband map and plan. The stimulus package (or ARRA of 2009) fully funds provisions of the Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2008, which calls for a national strategy for improving broadband, an integral part of which rightly should be mapping where broadband is and isn't available (and with some reliable gauge of the type and speed of service).

As Art Brodsky of Public Knowledge rightly puts it, however:

It’s unfortunate that the issue of broadband mapping is taking up any time and energy, much less about $350 million in stimulus money. Discussion of mapping takes away from discussion of the real issue – deployment, and why large companies have to be begged to provide service to some areas while they go to court and to state legislatures to prevent others from filling the gap.

Brodsky is entirely correct. Mapping, while important, even crucial, to a sound broadband deployment strategy, is only a small fraction of the challenge. Mapping is relatively cheap. Done well, it benefits all parties (consumers and providers). And with knowledge of existing networks, sound strategies to fill gaps in service can be devised.

But the map is only the beginning. No broadband map can be 100% accurate (not even briefly). Providers do not gather spatial deployment data in a consistent way. Many small providers do not gather spatial data on their networks at all. Maps must be verified. And the best means of verification is through consumers themselves, not by trusting the validity of data providers cough up through any data gathering and compiling process.

A nationwide broadband map, then, is only as effective as the level of public involvement in scrutinizing and correcting it. In other words, the map, which is an artifact of a necessarily imperfect and incomplete and continually changing data collection is not the territory in which the public solicits broadband deployment and improvements in performance. Rather the territory comprises those far-flung locales where various publics either are or are not served adequately to meet their needs.

This reality is what makes Brodsky's blithe dismissal of comprehensive planning processes aimed at engaging those local publics so striking. In condemning Connected Nation, an entity for which Brodsky reserves especial venom, he claims, "Connected Nation charges up to millions of dollars for mapping and, in some occasions, to organize local teams to assess demand." In the same piece, Brodsky marvels at how small a ratio of Connected Nation's budget is dedicated to mapping. (Full disclosure: I have had a working relationship ConnectKentucky and more recently Connected Nation since 2004, consulting on the demand stimulation efforts.)

In unleashing his fury on the skewed nature of Connected Nation's mapping project budgets, however, Brodsky betrays his ignorance of the intricacies of broadband deployment. As is the case with all infrastructures, broadband is a socio-technical system. This means that supply and demand necessarily co-evolve along with regulatory institutions, legal frameworks, and even family life. Drawing a map of where broadband is available is essential. But doing so does nothing to mobilize interest at localities where it has never been available. Connected Nation's approach is two-pronged: mapping supply and working with providers to extend their networks while simultaneously working extensively with leaders at a local level to increase demand and adoption. In many instances, those local efforts have led to local and even regional broadband deployments when no provider was willing to step in and extend supply.

All these efforts are influenced by mapping and accuracy. Indeed, part of the process is to solicit extensive feedback from the public on the maps that Connected Nation produces. But mapping is only a fraction of the overall effort necessary to develop, extend, and improve broadband. Connected Nation's process demonstrates that they understand the complexities of the challenge. Brodsky's off-the-cuff dismissal of this approach is evidence that he doesn't have a clue.

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