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Wishful mapping

Connected Nation unveils its map of broadband access in North Carolina, but will it help the state secure stimulus dollars?

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Click to view full size • Broadband Service Inventory for the State of North Carolina - IMAGE COURTESY OF CONNECT NORTH CAROLINA

How many people in North Carolina have access to high-speed Internet service, and how many do not? That question must be answered if North Carolina is to receive any of the $7.2 billion in federal stimulus money for broadband deployment.

According to a map made available online last week by the industry-backed nonprofit Connected Nation, broadband is available to 92 percent of North Carolina households. That number seems too high to some legislators and public interest advocates, who are concerned that overstating the amount of access will hurt the state's chances of receiving federal grants.

"You'll be pleased that over 90 percent of the households in North Carolina are now served by one or more broadband providers," Connected Nation representative Joe Mefford said during the unveiling of the map at the state legislature last week. "The maps also, by that, indicate that there's been a huge investment in broadband in this state already."

Mefford touted the project as "the most accurate map we've created to this point," that its interactive geographic information system allows users to "drill down to the street level, even the address level to find out who the broadband providers are in that area."

Yet, during the demonstration that followed, Mefford and his staff were unable to get the address search function of the map to function.

"Trust me, it works," Mefford said.

Technical difficulties can happen during presentations, but the map was buggy throughout Thursday and Friday. More important, Mefford's comment illustrates the problem with what Connected Nation has to offer—and the larger problem with the federal government's guidelines for mapping programs, which Connected Nation and telecommunications industry lobbyists helped to shape: There is no way to independently verify the information and a falsely rosy picture could mean communities in need of help won't get it.

Craig Settles, an Oakland, Calif.-based consultant on broadband technology, said the broadband stimulus has been hijacked by the telecommunications industry. "It started as a noble effort," he said, "but it's a complete and total travesty all around."

Each state must choose one mapping entity in order to be eligible for any of the broadband stimulus money. There is $350 million set aside specifically for mapping, to be divided between the states. That's too much money, Settles thinks, and the terms favor Connected Nation and the industry. "We're going to pay you millions of dollars to collect all this information, but you can't tell anybody what this information is? That is the most stupid-ass thing on the planet. It's the taxpayer paying for this."

While the telephone and cable industry commissioned and paid for the Connected Nation map of North Carolina, Mefford made it clear that the company intends to apply for federal stimulus grants to update it.

The data in Connected Nation's map comes entirely from the companies themselves: the location of their cables and wires, of switching stations and wireless signal towers. Access to actual homes is extrapolated based on proximity to those facilities. There is no consumer survey to verify that assumption. Furthermore, the map lumps together several forms "broadband" and does not indicate which type of service is available in a given area. (The National Telecommunications and Information Administration defines broadband as 768 Kpbs download speed and 200 Kpbs upload speed—the baseline speed of telephone-based DSL service.)

Looking at a big swath of pink, you don't know if a town or county has slow DSL, high-speed cable or even faster fiber. You don't know which services are available—or whether there is any competition—unless you're looking for a specific address.

Even then, you won't get a full picture.

Dan and Becky Garrett live in Efland, only a mile and a half from Interstate 40. According to the Connected Nation map, their home has broadband access, which makes them one of the state's happy 92 percent.

Yet the Garretts aren't happy. Their only option is DSL from CenturyTel (the map gets that right) for which they pay $90 a month—$45 each for the landline phone and the DSL service. Cable isn't available to their neighborhood, so to get TV they pay for satellite service, roughly another $100 a month.

Becky Garrett works for a software company. She spends three days a week working from home and must communicate constantly with colleagues in India, which means constant access to e-mail and chat is essential. Dan Garrett says his wife is frustrated with the speed and reliability of the service.

He is concerned about cost. There have been ongoing furloughs at his aircraft mechanic job, and he's tightening the family budget. "I'm cutting the luxuries. I've got $200 a month I don't want to spend—I'd rather spend $100."

The Garretts have been trying for three years to convince Time Warner Cable to offer service to their neighborhood. When he first called the cable company, his address didn't show up on their map. "It's not like I live out in the boonies," he said. Nor was he the first of his neighbors to call. "I talked to a guy who's been here for eight years. He gave up trying."

Garrett said he was told by a company representative that it would cost Time Warner Cable $17,000 a mile to lay a cable that would reach the neighborhood. "I can understand that," he said. What the customer service rep said next surprised Garrett "He said, 'We're not going to do it without government assistance,' and I said, 'What are you talking about? I'm your customer and I'm the one that's going to pay you.' They said, 'You have to call your representative and get a petition.' So this is the way this works?"

Garrett's state representative in the House is Speaker Joe Hackney, a Democrat representing Chatham and Orange counties. Hackney has repeatedly said lack of access to the Internet is the most consistent complaint he hears from constituents. (See "Chatham's information highway is made of dirt," Feb. 18, 2009.)

Hackney authorized a special study committee on the topic last summer and during the session this year, folded broadband access into the name and mission of the House Ways and Means committee. Rep. Bill Faison, a Democrat representing Orange and Caswell counties, chaired both committees.

At the press conference last week, Faison thanked every telecom industry lobbyist in the room by name for their work on the Connected Nation map of the state. "Keep in mind, they are competitors, and part of this is information they would use to compete with each other. And so to get them to step up to the public good, to rise above what might be their interest, was for them an understandable and natural challenge," Faison said. "There's no way I know of to thank them enough for what they've done or to admire them enough for their ability to rise above their own self and business interest" for the greater good of the state, he said.

Yet he added that the 92 percent number seemed too high, likely due to the fact that it includes fixed wireless services, and that a truer number is probably about 76 percent. He said legislative staff were being directed to "proof-test" the map's accuracy.

Connected Nation's board is made up of telecommunications industry heavyweights. An investigation published last year by Art Brodsky of the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge characterized the organization as a sales front for AT&T and other major incumbent telephone and cable companies.

Connected Nation CEO Brian Mefford has repeatedly denied and refuted the claims, saying the group has hundreds of public and private partners at the state and local level, and insisting the maps are verifiable because consumers can search the maps to see if their households are accurately represented.

But the group's ties to AT&T are evident. The company's chief lobbyist, Herb Crenshaw, has been the point person in the legislature for Connected Nation's map of North Carolina. AT&T's North Carolina President Cynthia Marshall attended the map's unveiling.

Crenshaw directed questions to company spokesperson Clifton Metcalf. "The legislature and the state needed and accurate and reliable map they could rely on in addressing the issue," Metcalfe said. "This map uses the most accurate, comprehensive methodology we knew about. At the same time it protects proprietary information that companies provided."

Connected Nation is selling itself as the best mapping agent available to states seeking federal broadband stimulus money. "[The map] puts the state of North Carolina in the position to go after funds for unserved areas," Joe Mefford told state legislators. "You are one of seven states that has a map that is compliant with the guidelines set forth by RUS and NTIA."

In fact, North Carolina is one of seven states that Connected Nation has mapped, but others, including Virginia and California, have created their own broadband access maps.

So has North Carolina.

You wouldn't know it from the press conference, but North Carolina was the first state to produce a GIS map of broadband availability, in 2001.

You'd think North Carolina's leaders would want to take credit for the fact that statewide broadband mapping was invented here. One might expect state legislators to tout the forward thinking of their predecessors in creating The e-NC Authority, the first state government organization to pursue Internet access as a tool for education, job growth and better public infrastructure. Its founder and executive director, Jane Smith Patterson, is known nationally and internationally as a leader in technology access.

The omission of e-NC in last week's presentation was an indication of just how effectively the industry has pushed its agenda on Jones Street.

Like Connected Nation, e-NC uses data provided by the industry to map access. While you can look up street addresses on e-NC's map, you can't tell whether a specific address is served or by whom, because the industry would not agree to have the data presented with that level of specificity. Without that capability, the existing e-NC map does not meet requirements for federal mapping grants.

"We are surprised that they say that 90 percent of the state has broadband access," Patterson said following the presentation, "because the same data the companies have given us doesn't show that."

According to e-NC's most recent map, which uses 2007 data, service is available to about 83 percent of households.

The organization is working on updating its map but has been stymied by AT&T, which has yet to provide 2008 data despite a nondisclosure agreement e-NC signed at the company's request. Metcalf would not say whether the company intended to cooperate.

Faison said he has been frustrated with the limitations of e-NC's map. "The problem I had with e-NC was that they were accepting inadequate data and not only publishing that data, but publishing it without the footnote that says we don't think this is good enough.

The e-NC map provides countywide averages of availability. In counties like Orange, with a mix of rural and urban populations, averages are especially misleading. "I told e-NC, you've just told me that I have 90 percent coverage and I don't buy it. It's not what I'm hearing on the ground."

The state could compel companies to provide more detailed data, and early on during Faison's committee proceedings, he drafted legislation to do just that. Industry lobbyists fought it, he said. Then they came back with the news that they'd hired Connected Nation to provide a map with all the information Faison had requested.

For all its faults, Faison said, "This map, I think, is a much more realistic depiction."

Patterson said e-NC would like to be the designated mapping agent for North Carolina and she hopes to make that case soon to the Office of Economic Recovery and Investment, headed by Dempsey Benton. He is expected to make a recommendation to Gov. Beverly Perdue by the federal deadline of Aug. 14.

E-NC continues to be involved in broadband issues statewide, Patterson said, offering help and guidance to federal stimulus applicants across the state. Yet due to the drastic budget cuts statewide this year, e-NC is doing less of what it used to. For instance, it will not provide matching grants to companies that build out service. She pointed out that e-NC has a vision of broadband that is more ambitious than that spelled out in the minimal definitions laid out in the federal stimulus.

Meanwhile, Nicholas Didow Jr., a marketing professor at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School, is putting together his own mapping proposal, which he says would incorporate data from both the industry and consumers.

"The carriers know best where the existing cable, DSL and fiber-optic lines are buried. But the consumers know what service they're getting and can give more information on reliability, technical support, speed and price. And the consumer side is just as important to infrastructure policy issues," Didow said. "We want to put together a comprehensive approach to broadband mapping, a broad public-private partnership" that would include other parts of the university, not just UNC-Chapel Hill.

One person who strongly supports Didow's approach is Bunny Sanders, mayor of the small coastal town of Roper. Sanders is head of a technology center called WOW e-CDC, which conducted its own 20-county survey of broadband access and found e-NC's maps contained an overestimate of availability. Sanders is also critical of Connected Nation's map, which she says falsely reports several areas surrounding her town as having Internet available.

"It's the same problem we've been having, overstating the availability because they're estimating," she said. She has spoken before Faison's committee, blasting Connected Nation, which she says has a "rotten track record" documented by complaints to the Federal Communications Commission.

"Every time I come to Raleigh, I say, please don't leave us out," Sanders said. "When you allow them to tell you that there are areas that are covered that are not, that's unfair to people in that county.

Many questions linger: Will Dempsey Benton, Gov. Perdue's appointed stimulus czar, see through Connected Nation's slick presentation and look for more substance? What other options will be on the table, and will they meet federal guidelines?

Settles, the California-based technology consultant, says the forward-thinking actions of local communities like Wilson and Salisbury, North Carolina cities that are building publicly owned fiber-optic broadband networks, are the nation's best hope.

"What needs to happen at the state and local level is, people need to say, 'forget you' to the whole apparatus. Create your own maps. Build your own infrastructure. Make happen what needs to happen."

The Broadband Working Group of the state's Office of Economic Recovery and Investment will meet this Thursday, July 16 at 2:00 p.m. in the Board of Education Board Room in the New Education Building at 301 Wilmington Street, Raleigh.

Correction (July 16, 2009): This article incorrectly identified Joe Mefford as the CEO of Connected Nation. Joe Mefford is listed as the Statewide Broadband Director of the Connected Nation subsidiary, Connect Kentucky. His son, Brian Mefford, is the CEO of Connected Nation.

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