DIY or Go Without Broadband: Part One

It is time to visit “realville,” the principal telco broadband providers are not going to build out rural broadband.  It is a simple straightforward return on investment decision these providers. 

I was Co-Chair of the Nevada County Economic Resource Council’s Telecommunication Resource Committee in the early 2000s.  A committee charged with finding ways to bring broadband to Nevada County to replace an inadequate dial-up infrastructure. Using a California Department of Commerce grand we conducted an internet online and telephone marketing survey and wrote a study to document the demand for broadband access by business and individuals in Western Nevada County.  We presented the study results to an SBC Outreach Team; it was before SBC became AT&T. Our presentation bombed. 

The five representatives suppressed their giggles and humored us, explaining we did not understand the process. We had to be in their Five Year Strategic Plan, and many of the geographical areas we had identified were not in any plan, and would not be until the population’s density was higher, thus increasing the return on investment probability.  As one of the representatives explained, Marketing does not make the decision where to build out, that is done by our accounts in Texas when they determine the expansion will pay for its self in revenue. In other words, ROI would be the determining factor for broadband in our community. 

The reason that vast areas of rural California does not have reliable broadband that meets the minimum criteria is that the population density is not high enough to meet the ROI threshold set by the primary providers accounting staff.  It is time that rural communities recognize that they will never reach that threshold and must take action on their own to provide this essential infrastructure. Counties, Cities, and Towns must take a leadership role in acquiring broadband for their communities. 

As affirmed by [Agriculture] Secretary Perdue, it’s time to build a 21st Century Highway of Connectivity. We can look to models from the past that have expanded utilities such as electricity and telephone service to all for ideas. Solving the problem will require creative partnerships between federal, state, local government and private partners.

It will be up to local community leaders to step up and form the organizations necessary to create the necessary partnerships. These local organizations must be strong enough to combat the challenges of significant providers who abhors competition, as someday in the far distant future they might want to include the community in their strategic plan, and the population density might someday meet the accounting department’s ROI threshold. So, they will challenge every attempt to develop broadband networks that will put them at a competitive disadvantage in the future. They are more than willing to put broadband access on hold until some corporate accountant decides rural citizens can have access to a better life. 

Once the local organizations are formed and funded one of the first tasks will be to establish a solid case the telco and cable providers are not providing any service or the service provided is inadequate, not up to the required standards. The current federal standard is 25 Mbps downland and 3 Mbps upload. The California standard by legislative fiat is 6 Mbps down and 1Mbps. The lower CA standard is the result of lobbying by the major providers to lower the bar to better match the limited capabilities of an aging infrastructure. Milking the systems for all the ROI they can get. Sad, but true.

In addition to fighting the ORI friction, communities all across America and California are victims of a broadband mapping scam. The original maps were build based on advertised rates and coverage. The crazy idea supported this coverage ruse that if one user in a census block had access to broadband, all potential users in that census block had the same service.  What a farce! 

In 2006?? the Gold County Broadband Consortia opened a booth at the County Fair and asked visitors to list their address and the kind of broadband service they had at the location, including who the service provider was and how well they were served. Many of the survey forms were incomplete, and where participated had included a phone number, the GCBC staff, volunteers and as a consultant I followed up and requested additional information, resulting in about 345 survey forms with useful information, which was plotted on Arc/GIS maps.  See sample map

Nevada County Fair Survey Map Sample

Nevada County Fair Sample

Empty circles are unserved, orange circles underserved slow service and filled circles above the CA Standard of 6/1.

Comparing the GCBC survey maps with the California Broadband Maps demonstrated the weakness in the California Broadband maps which were being used to make policy and assess grant requests by local internet service providers. The end result was a public comment layer being added to the California Broadband Maps, which challenges the advertised coverage and service speed being promoted by the primary broadband providers.

Public Layer Sample

Public Feedback Area Sample

The hatched area is where citizens reported discrepancies in reported coverage.

Eventually, even the US Congress recognized that the National Broadband Maps were not accurate and should not be used to support policy and financial decision. In June of 2017 Chairman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), House Communications Subcommittee held a hearing which focused on updating the National Broadband Map, which had not happened since June 2014.

She said accurate definitions and mapping data is imperative so that “hardworking taxpayer money goes to areas that most need it.”

In February of 2018, the FCC published some updated but flawed broadband maps. Critiques of the current maps:

The Problem With the FCC’s New National Broadband Map – CityLab

FCC Launches New Broadband Map – Broadcasting & Cable

Bottom line, the CA or FCC coverage maps used by policymakers to allocate resources in California communities are not accurate. Communities must ground proof the maps if they want to get fair access to the limited Federal and State fund for expanding broadband in rural areas.  Waiting for the significant broadband providers is not the best option, taking control is essential if the community is going to have access to 21st Century communication infrastructure so critical to their economic growth.

 Brookings Institute:

Neighborhood-level broadband indicators reveal clear performance differences within and between communities of all sizes. As such, no one community will require the same interventions to address its availability and adoption gaps. However, local stakeholders from the public, private, and civic sectors can use common approaches to geographically target and design interventions that leverage federal, state, and local resources and programs and reflect local conditions and needs. In particular, the neighborhood-level maps can point to areas most in need.

In the next installment, I will examine in more detail some of the tools rural communities can use to validate their neighborhood broadband coverage.

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