Identifying those areas will be a major thrust of the mapping project. The maps will show broadband availability, type (phone or cable, for example) and speeds for each small cluster of homes, roughly equivalent to a city block in urban areas.
Each state’s grant for mapping will go to either a nonprofit or a government agency. Internet service providers already have committed to handing over data about where they have broadband coverage, so the main job will be to collect and translate that information into a map.
Mark Seifert, who is overseeing the broadband grant and mapping programs at the NTIA, offers several reasons why the federal government may spend proportionally more on mapping than some states. For one thing, he said, most efforts that have been done in states have focused on so-called “last-mile” connections that link homes and businesses with the broader infrastructure of the Internet. The NTIA also wants extensive data on that behind-the-scenes Internet infrastructure.
What’s more, because much of the mapping data will come from phone and cable companies, the NTIA wants the information to be verified independently — which could involve knocking on doors to confirm where broadband is and is not available and conducting other on-the-ground checks.
“You can spend less money on a map … but you get what you pay for,” he said. “Data costs money.”
Although the map will not be done in time to guide this round of broadband funding in the stimulus package, it could prove useful for later broadband deployment programs. It also could help set priorities in the years ahead for huge federal programs such as the Universal Service Fund and the Rural Utilities Service, which spend billions of dollars annually to subsidize telecom services.
In addition to the NTIA’s mapping project, there’s a parallel push at the FCC to gather more detailed data on broadband subscribers. Both efforts are designed to aid the Obama administration’s goal of “data-driven decision-making” in setting telecom policy, said Colin Crowell, a senior counselor to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.
“There is a voracious appetite for all kinds of broadband data,” said Mr. Crowell, who helped write the broadband mapping legislation as a staffer on a House subcommittee overseeing telecommunications. “Policy-makers have been wringing their hands for several years that we don’t have accurate data on broadband deployment and adoption.”