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We Are Not a Networked Nation

Bush Administration Hype Belied by the Data

NTIA map SOURCE: NTIA Rather than pretending there are more broadband links across our country, as the administration does in its latest report, we should instead get down to the business of creating a networked nation.

Don’t believe the hype. Look instead at the underlying data.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency of the Department of Commerce, announced last week that the U.S. is a networked nation. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The press release trumpets “the nation’s broadband success story.” The report itself is full of anecdotes that demonstrate why broadband is important in the fields of education, health care, and disaster response. But the most striking claim is that “since President Bush took office, the total number of broadband lines in the United States has grown by over 1,100 percent from almost 6.8 million lines to 82.5 million in December 2006.”

The U.S. government can’t even pinpoint where advanced telecommunications services are deployed in the United States.

Unfortunately, the report is simply another public relations trick meant to obscure the hard fact that the U.S. government can’t even pinpoint where advanced telecommunications services are deployed in the United States. First of all, because multiple subscriber lines are used in large businesses, the rise in the number of subscriber lines is not a good indicator of deployment. Worse yet, the very details about the data highlighted in the report illustrate exactly why the data itself is unreliable.

The report states, for example, that “it appears clear, at least at the level of analytical granularity that the present data will support, that a vast majority of Americans (well over 90 percent) have access to broadband communications through one or more modality.”

The NTIA, however, is relying largely on discredited zip-code data from the Federal Communications Commission.

The report also pulls from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Internet Use Supplement to the October 2007 Current Population Survey, which does not provide information about broadband speeds. So, it turns out that “the level of analytical granularity” is not very granular at all.

Declaring that access is accomplished when the industry reports that one entity in that zip-code has service does not tell us who has broadband.

The report admits that “more work remains to be done both by the government and by the private sector to improve broadband data.” That statement, at least, is factually correct. It has taken far too long to get the Bush administration, and the private industry that apparently directs it, to admit what many of us have been writing about for ten years.

The data collection problems have not changed: A five-digit zip-code is too large a geographic area to indicate where broadband is deployed. Declaring that access is accomplished when the industry reports that one entity in that zip-code has service does not tell us who has broadband. And 200 kilobits per second in one direction is not advanced telecommunications service.

Recommendations on repairing these deficiencies are as old as the data collection problems. House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Edward Markey’s Broadband Census Bill passed the House last year, and the Senate Commerce Committee passed Chairman Daniel Inouye’s Broadband Data Improvement Act, but we have no bill before the President to sign. Congress should act on this immediately. As Senator Inouye said last spring, “we cannot manage what we do not measure.”

Senior Bush Administration officials, however, keep peddling the happy talk. According to Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, the Bush administration’s regulatory and tax policies, “made a significant impact on the availability and affordability of broadband in the United States.” Again, this is more spin than substance.

The Administration claims that it has “cleared away regulatory obstacles that could thwart the investment that fuels development—and deployment—of new technologies.” The President deserves credit for signing legislation to extend the Federal moratorium on State and local taxation of Internet access, and for legislation allowing companies to accelerate depreciation for capital expenditures, including those associated with broadband deployment. But these tax policies were set during the Clinton years.

The Bush administration’s word games—calling telecommunications companies information service companies so they would not have to support universal service—alongside its general antagonism toward the E-Rate program, which supports deployment to schools and libraries, did not fuel the development or deployment of new Internet technology.

Moreover, the elimination of NTIA’s Technology Opportunity Program, and termination of support for community technology centers, were steps in the wrong direction.

Instead of hype, we need national leadership that will be brave enough to ask the hard questions about U.S. broadband capabilities, and then be willing to tell the American people the facts. For the fact is this: The United States needs a comprehensive broadband that is ubiquitous and redundant to boost our national security, national preparedness, and national economy.

Mark Lloyd is a Advisory Board member of Science Progress for telecommunications and the Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Read his report Ubiquity Requires Redundancy: The Case for Federal Investment in Broadband.

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