This morning, I went to the Utah Broadband Provider Summit at the Salt Lake City Public Library to see what the state will be doing in regards to broadband mapping in Utah. There was a lot of good discussion, but I left feeling like as smart as the people in charge may be, they’re not entirely equipped for the enormous task ahead of them.
For one, I do not think that the data collection process will prove to be granular enough. The current plan calls for going down to the census block with no block greater than 2 square miles. In some cases, this gets down to a block size of of a couple dozen homes. Not too bad, but some of the census blocks in my area can be 50+ homes. That’s a pretty big swing and gives providers an out to claim service in a census block even if they can only provide service to a single home in it. That’s the same problem as the FCC’s current ZIP code-level stats, just on a smaller scale.
I also don’t think enough metrics are being considered. While the standard upload and download speeds will be collected, there was no discussion on comparing the advertised and delivered speeds. Given that delivered speeds are often half of what is advertised, that’s kind of a big deal. Pings will be collected via online speed tests (powered by Ookla, unsurprisingly), but that doesn’t give an idea of performance over time. I also didn’t hear anything about measuring uptime, another critical component of quality broadband. The speeds measured may also be capped at 50Mbps, no doubt to cap high-bandwidth networks like UTOPIA and iProvo. UTOPIA also asked if open-access networks and general compliance with net neutrality could be mapped, but that’s something that may or may not be included.
Some of the data won’t see public scrutiny. The mapping effort will include address-specific points and middle/last-mile network backbones, but the general public won’t get to see it. While I can understand that some providers might not want to provide a blueprint for competitors to steal their customers, the need for public disclosure is much, much greater, especially in cases where franchise agreements, easements, or other public concessions have been involved. We deserve to know what we’re getting for our money.
We’re also stuck using the FCC definition of broadband, a measly 768K downstream and 200K upstream. Granted, we’ll get the speeds reported, but that definition of “broadband” is unacceptable to anyone who has actually used a real connection. This low minimum is the fault of the FCC and no doubt required by NTIA, but it would be nice to see a higher standard set by the state. (As long as you’re going to pick fights with the feds, pick ones that count.)
It’s not all bad, though. Data will be differentiated between service types, including DSL, cable, and fiber. Wireless will be split up into both fixed and mobile, an important distinction since point-to-point is pretty easy. All of the public data will be available via an interactive map that will allow overlaying demographics, anchor institutions, and even various service types (i.e. seeing where both cable and fiber are available). The first round of mapping data will be available in January with semi-annual updates for at least two and as many as five years.
Mapping isn’t the only topic, though. The state is looking to wire over 400 buildings across the state as part of a push to anchor institutions. UEN has also committed to wiring as many K-12 schools, colleges, and universities as possible in a push to get some kind of high-bandwidth service to underserved rural counties.
Competition for service also came up. At least one rural user complained that while broadband is available, it’s too expensive. A number of rural providers in attendance took exception to this, though it’s hard to do a price comparison without the data at hand. The map, however, doesn’t lie about speeds: 10Mbps service is primarily in the Wasatch Front, St. George, and those few rural towns where the incumbent has done a fiber build to consolidate copper and HFC plants. Rural areas have fewer competitors. That’s a tough truth, one I hope that will be highlighted once data is available.
Between now and the next summit, the Utah broadband website will be up at broadband.utah.gov and a second round of data may be submitted to the NTIA. In those intervening months, it is critical that you share your thoughts and ideas with the folks in charge of the effort. Tara Thue is leading the effort and has asked that any questions or suggestions get e-mailed to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow the Broadband Broadband Project folks on Twitter as @UtahBroadband. And if you want to see my live-tweeting of the summit, visit this link.