Broadband mapping may have just gotten easier

While nothing about the broadband stimulus granting and loan process is easy, one of the most aggravating parts of it is accurate mapping of where broadband access is actually available. The federal government has conducted the process backward by calling for mapping applications and broadband proposals at pretty much the same time. Conventional wisdom says broadband access might not be deployed in the most needy of places if we don't know where it really is in the first place.

And mapping is hard. Two primary methods exist today. Either incumbent telcos and cable companies give away the tightly held information to a company like Connected Nation, which is shrouded in controversy because of its ties with incumbents but nevertheless has garnered some of the broadband mapping money for certain states, or you canvas the streets to poll folks about what broadband service they have--an expensive and tedious task. California, Indiana, North Carolina and Vermont are pretty much taking the polling route. In all, $350 million was set aside for states to do mapping because of the expense of trying to find this valuable data.

That's why I'm so intrigued by a new product from a company that doesn't even play in the broadband space. Data and analytics company ID Insight has developed a product called Broadband Scout that can provide data about broadband connectivity and usage down to the census block. The company's proprietary databases have historically been used to track a host of ecommerce retail activity across the country, but it can also use that data to provide information about connectivity and usage at a very granular level, including state, county, tract, block group or block number. To me, this information is the most unbiased information one could find when it comes to broadband availability.

ID Insight President Adam Elliott stumbled on this new line of business when a colleague phoned him last summer to ask if his firm was able to provide broadband data information at the census block level. His answer was, "I'm not sure, why?" His colleague was applying for broadband stimulus money. "When I really started doing the deep thinking on this, I realized people just want site location, much like you see in retail. We can see that connection data."

While ID Insight missed out on broadband stimulus money for mapping, it has several areas to play in, including assisting states with their broadband mapping process, and possibly speeding up the process. The NTIA is set to receive broadband mapping data from states by February. The data will include deployment information, advertised speeds and types of service, which will be used to identify where the greatest needs are for broadband in unserved and underserved areas. By February 2011, the NTIA wants to have an interactive, national broadband map in place.

Additionally, regional operators really want to know this information in order to cost-effectively expand their services, Elliott said. Such information will be helpful in the next round of broadband stimulus grants and loans in 2010 and could be a valuable tool in staving of incumbent challenges to current broadband stimulus applications that NTIA and the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) are evaluating. Incumbents are allowed to challenge broadband stimulus proposals and can succeed if they can prove they are already covering areas where applicants plan to provide broadband services.

Of course two main entities that could really use this information right now are NTIA and RUS.--Lynnette