At a recent hearing discussing broadband infrastructure and draft legislation, House Democrats and Republicans alike pitched the idea of dusting off a national broadband map that cost $293 million to develop and has been dormant for the past three years.
U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said updating the map would better enable government to determine where broadband is currently flourishing or nonexistent.
“We must accurately collect and aggregate data to update the National Broadband Map,” Blackburn said at that March hearing of the Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee, which she chairs.
But critics say the map was confusing and ineffective, and a taxpayer boondoggle to boot.
The searchable and interactive map, created to allow users to view broadband availability in every U.S. neighborhood, was a child of the American Recover and Reinvestment Act, better known as the 2009 economic stimulus. The $293 million was provided to 56 agencies across all 50 states, five territories and the District of Columbia to collect the data.
The end result wasn’t inspiring. DSL Reports noted at launch in 2011 the map seemed inaccurate, listing the wrong providers for a given area and overstating the options and speeds available in some cases. The outlet also pointed out prices weren’t listed, and blamed the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, the Department of Commerce subdivision that administers the map, for giving in to pressure from private internet providers who didn’t want that information included in the map.
NTIA stopped updating the map after June 30, 2014, because Congress chose not to throw more money at the project in fiscal 2015. The NTIA notes on the map’s “about” page that updated information on broadband deployment can be viewed through the Federal Communication Commission’s semi-annual Form 477 data collection and annual broadband progress report.
Brent Skorup, research fellow in the technology policy program at the Mercatus Center, told Watchdog.org he can’t recall a time he used the National Broadband Map in his research.
“It’s anecdotal, but I haven’t heard of other researchers who have used it,” he added, pointing out how poorly functioning the map is and calling the initial cost “excessive.”
He said, however, that if Congress decides to reboot the map, then lawmakers should look across the Atlantic, where the United Kingdom’s Office of Communication – its FCC, essentially – has developed an effective map that also offers speeds tests and shows mobile internet availability.
“I think this can be done well,” Skorup said.
He suggests a second effort would be better served by combining collection efforts into one organization rather than counting on dozens of state agencies with different policies and procedures.
“If you’re doing a national map, you probably only want one party collecting data and putting it together,” Skorup said.
The subcommittee discussed legislation correlated to President Donald Trump’s plan to spend more on infrastructure. Panel members generally agreed that expanding broadband to the unserved and underserved should be part of any spending package.
“People want broadband as much as new roads,” Blackburn said.