Some people are complaining that the company hoping to map the availability of broadband Internet is too closely tied to the same major telecommunications and cable companies that stand to benefit from the more than $7 billion in funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the stimulus package, reported the Wall St. Journal today.
One of the first steps in the process of expanding broadband Internet access in rural areas of the U.S. is for the Federal Communications Commission to produce a map of the areas that already have service -- and those that don't. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) came under criticism earlier this year for making $1.35 billion in loans that primarily added broadband Internet service to areas that already had it, rather than by bringing it to areas without it.
Just the mapping alone is likely to cost $350 million, the Journal reported.
The biggest U.S. provider of broadband coverage maps, Connected Nation Inc., is trying to become the provider of maps for the federal stimulus program. But it is backed by big telecommunications companies like Comcast Corp., Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. that potentially stand to benefit, the Journal reported.
For example, of the company's 12 directors, eight are high-ranking executives in companies such as AT&T, CTIA The Wireless Association, Comcast, Verizon, Communications Workers of America, United States Telecom Association, National Cable and Telecommunications Association, and the Telecommunications Industry Association, according to "Privatizing the Public Trust: A Critical Look At Connected Nation," a report written by the groups Public Knowledge, Common Cause, The Media and Democracy Coalition, and Reclaim the Media earlier this year.
"In order to be effective, a national broadband data-collection and mapping exercise should be conducted by a government agency, on behalf of the public, with as granular a degree of information as possible and be totally transparent so that underlying information can be evaluated. Connected Nation is none of those and represents none of those characteristics," the report said. "It would be a setback for our broadband policy if Connected Nation were to take a prominent role in broadband mapping and data collection if it continues on its present policy course because the organization does not represent wise public policy and because it distorts its results."
For example, the company lobbied Congress to give the companies -- not the government -- final say over which data should be made public, the report said. It also uses a nondisclosure agreement in some states that does not allow maps to differentiate between different kinds of broadband services. "This clause in the agreement means that the broadband maps produced by Connected Nation or its franchise operations around the country simply show that a company has some service on some street. For consumers or policymakers, there may be no indication of what the technology is, at what speed, or at what price," the report said.
The company was originally started as Connect Kentucky in 2004 and was founded by the son of a Bell South lobbyist. But it is regulators and municipalities in Kentucky that are lobbying federal officials to reject Connected Nation's method for mapping Internet availability, saying maps produced by Connect Kentucky over-estimate broadband availability in some areas, the Journal reported. In addition, some smaller broadband providers in Kentucky reported problems with the group's maps, saying they didn't show up on them. And because of the nondisclosure agreements, regulators say they can't verify the group's data.