Broadband Falls Short in U.S.

Large swaths of the western and southern U.S. do not have access to wired or fixed wireless broadband, according to a new national broadband map released by two U.S. agencies Thursday.

The nation's first national broadband map shows that between 5 percent and 10 percent of the U.S. population lacks access to broadband that supports basic applications, including downloading Web pages, photos and video, said the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The NTIA released the map in cooperation with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

The broadband map was developed using open-source software such as the OpenGEO Suite and WordPress, and the agencies will make the map's APIs (application programming interfaces) available to all developers and entrepreneurs who want to offer services tied to the map, NTIA and FCC officials said. The agencies will update the data in the map every six months, and the map includes a feature where users can report information about broadband providers in their area.

The map will help broadband provide

rs and government agencies target areas that need broadband service, and help consumers compare service and speed, said Julius Genachowski, the FCC's chairman. The first release of the map is "just the beginning," he said during a press conference.

"Millions of Americans live in areas where they can't get broadband even if they wanted because the infrastructure simply isn't there," he added.

The NTIA also announced new broadband adoption information Thursday. About 68.2 percent of U.S. residents subscribe to broadband now, compared to 63.5 percent a year ago, said Rebecca Blank, acting deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Commerce, the NTIA's parent agency.

The growth is "good news, but when you dig deeper into the data, it's clear that we still have work to do," Blank said.

White households have an adoption rate about 20 percent higher than African-American or Hispanic households, she said. The adoption rate in rural areas is about 10 percent behind urban areas, she added.

The broadband map also shows that schools and libraries have slower broadband speeds than they need, added Larry Strickling, NTIA's administrator. Schools with 1,000 students should have broadband speeds of 50 to 100 Mbps, but two-thirds of schools in the U.S. have speeds lower than 25 Mbps, he said. Only 4 percent of libraries have speeds above 25 Mbps, he added.

Some critics of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed by Congress in early 2009, said the bill should not have authorized the NTIA and the U.S. Rural Utilities Service to award about US$7 billion in broadband deployment grants and loans before the map was completed. The legislation required the two agencies to award the money by late 2010, while the deadline for the map to be available was Thursday.

Strickling said he suspects the broadband map will confirm the choices the NTIA made, although the agency focused more on building middle-mile access and bringing broadband to community institutions than on the residential broadband service the map shows.

The map allows users to search by address. The map shows that the area around the FCC's headquarters in southwest Washington, D.C., has 14 wired or wireless broadband providers offering download speeds of 768 Kbps or faster, but only one provider offering service of 10 Mbps to 25 Mbps and none offering faster speeds.

Fessenden, North Dakota, a farming community with about 600 residents, has two wired and two mobile providers, although one wired provider offers service of 25 to 50 Mbps, according to the map. Riverside, a town with about 60 residents in south central Wyoming, has one broadband provider offering speeds of 1.5 to 3 Mbps.

The map project, which will cost about $200 million over five years, includes money for states to update their broadband data. Data from about 1,600 broadband providers is included in the map, officials said.

Verizon Communications praised the broadband map, saying it will be useful for consumers.

But some critics questioned its accuracy and usefulness. NTIA has created a "good map" with lots of useful information, but it lacks solid data on broadband speed, said community broadband consultant Craig Settles.

"It is a shame that the map's potential value is severely crippled by incumbents' refusal to provide the one element of data that is key to the main reason for having the map -- accurate speeds," he said. "By and large, this map will always be incomplete. The two pieces of data needed by federal, state and local governments to create useful broadband policy and to spend money effectively for broadband projects are actual speeds plus a true picture of the competitive landscape within any given area."

The map's crowd-sourcing feature will update slowly, Settles added. "More importantly, if a community doesn't have a broadband connection crowd-sourcing data from them will be a little difficult," he added.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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