Broadband Access Sure Way to Spur Economic Growth

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Luisa Handem Piette
Luisa Handem Piette

But Do All Texans Have Access?

Luisa Handem Piette
Luisa Handem Piette

The long-awaited broadband map of Texas was released to the public on June 16—well over a year since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Stimulus Package) was signed into law, with $7.2 billion in funds earmarked for broadband expansion. The map boasts the use of new interactive broadband mapping platform, BroadbandStat, which allows a street-level view of broadband availability. It also provides the ability to continually enhance and upgrade the data, and gives users the ability to search by address and see the type of technologies used in their service areas, as well as their choice of providers and costs.

The Texas broadband map was created by Connected Texas, a subsidiary of Connected Nation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that was hired a year ago by the Texas Department of Agriculture and the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

A fundamental requirement for the distribution of stimulus funds has been the determination of need and the geographical location of those who lack broadband access, particularly in rural and remote communities. Connected Texas says that the Texas broadband map—which includes data from 123 state providers—indicates that 3.5 percent of Texas households, approximately 257,000 residences, mostly in rural regions, do not have access to home broadband service. This, says Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, hinders opportunities for business development and access to telemedicine, higher education and e-government.

Broadband mapping errors

The much-anticipated findings are, at best, inaccurate and, in the worst case scenario, may be deceptive, due to multiple errors. One of the problems the map presents is that, in some instances, it shows coverage where there is none, and lack of coverage where there has been broadband presence for quite some time. Another difficulty the map presents is that it indicates wireless presence where there has never been any known provider, as is the case in Hood and Somervell counties.

In Fayette County’s broadband inventory map and Fayette County’s density of households unserved, conflicting information is presented. In one case, a street is shown as having mobile broadband access while under density of households unserved the same street is shown as being an unserved area.

Furthermore, a mixed bag of wireless and broadband availability has been presented, either as a sign of the simplistic methodology used in data collection, or a deliberate attempt to inflate the percentage of households with broadband access in Texas. A serious mapping effort should indicate demand for broadband and actual experienced speeds—not providers’ marketed speeds, as appears to have been done in Texas.

Other relevant granular mapping aspects to be taken into account include: age differentials; income disparities, and the corresponding high or low adoption rate; ethnicity factors in adopting broadband; and subscriber education, where broadband is available but low subscribership is present. To address these concerns, the federal government has allocated $250 million for broadband adoption programs for computer and Internet skills instruction, and to make computer equipment available to access the Internet.

The data collection aspect is nonetheless the least of the problems facing Connected Nation and, by association, the Texas authorities in charge of helping to bridge the digital divide in the state. The most obvious criticism is that Connected Nation has done it again. In charge of mapping broadband availability in up to 13 states, Connected Nation has been widely criticized for producing maps that are not worth much, in spite of claims to the contrary. “The Monitor” column of IndyWeek.com, based in Durham, N.C., published a lengthy article last July about Connected Nation’s work in North Carolina, which it titled “Wishful Mapping.”

The financial strength and political influence that Connected Nation wields, especially across red states, has become synonymous with the widely recognized corporate power that still blinds politicians and legislators alike when attempting to govern based on justice and democratic values.

In order to be more precise in gauging how precarious broadband access is in the United States, the most recent data from a survey of about 54,000 households, conducted by the U.S. Commerce Department, estimates that up to 40 percent of Americans lack high-speed Internet at home. While 66 percent of urban households subscribed to broadband in October 2008, that was true for only 54 percent of rural households, the survey found. Texas broadband access would fall within those averages, only worse, given that it is the second largest state in the nation, and one with the most rural communities and counties.

Texas needs better access

On a global scale, the United States lags behind some 15 countries, in terms of access, affordability and speeds available. By including a sizable portion of the stimulus funds to expand broadband access, our government has finally recognized the intrinsic role of broadband in spurring economic growth, jobs creation, and the universal expansion of educational and healthcare opportunities. Texas should seize this opportunity to race ahead and become the most connected state in our nation, if only to offset its poor national ranking as one of the least educated states—currently among the bottom five.

The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service are in the middle of disbursing the second and last portion of the $7.2 billion in stimulus funding for broadband. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has determined minimum broadband speeds to be 768 kilobits per second (kbps) downstream and 200 kbps upstream. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has made it known that he would like 100 million U.S. households to have access to broadband at the fastest possible speeds, of 100 megabits per second, by 2020.

It is not too late for consumers and other interested parties to comment and provide relevant information to Connected Texas, to validate the data. The public is encouraged to review the Texas broadband map at http://www.connectedtx.org and provide input. That will allow the broadband inventory map to be updated in the fall after consumer and provider data are collected.

Luisa Handem Piette is managing director of RuMBA, the Rural Mobile and Broadband Alliance, whose mission is helping rural communities bridge the digital divide between urban, suburban and rural areas, especially regarding broadband connectivity. RuMBA seeks to bring together a group of broadband providers, service and equipment makers to ensure the best possible outcome for rural America’s development of fast and reliable broadband connection.

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