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Is the cost to map broadband access off the charts?

Congress allotted $350 million to determine U.S. access and speeds. Some see the amount as excessive. Also, work won't be done in time to spend much of $7.2 million earmarked to expand availability.

September 14, 2009|Associated Press

The national stimulus package passed by Congress in February may have been too enthusiastic about spending money on one particular project: figuring out where broadband Internet access is available and how fast it is.

The $787-billion stimulus bill set aside as much as $350 million to create a national broadband map that could guide policies aimed at expanding high-speed Internet access.

That $350-million price tag struck some people in the telecommunications industry as excessive, compared with existing, smaller efforts. The map won't even be done in time to help decide where to spend much of the $7.2 billion in stimulus money earmarked for broadband.

Now it appears the final cost won't be as high as $350 million but the total is unclear.

To ensure the mapping money is used "in a fiscally prudent manner," the National Telecommunications and Information Administration signaled last week that it would spend more than $100 million and then reassess the program.

The agency, which is part of the Commerce Department, said it had received requests for $107 million in funding for projects that would map broadband in individual states over the first two years. The states want an additional $26 million for various purposes over five years, including steps to encourage broadband demand. On top of that, the NTIA will have to spend more money to collate the statewide maps into a national one.

Although the map should run much less than the $350-million cap set by Congress, the total still looks to be far higher than estimates based on the costs of smaller efforts in individual states.

In North Carolina, for instance, state broadband authority e-NC spends at most $275,000 a year on maintaining a broadband availability map detailed enough to list individual addresses, Executive Director Jane Smith Patterson said.

Rory Altman, director at telecommunications consulting firm Altman Vilandrie & Co., which has helped clients map broadband availability in some areas, said $350 million was a "ridiculous" amount of money to spend on a national broadband map.

Even $100 million may be high. The firm could create a national broadband map for $3.5 million and "would gladly do it for $35 million," Altman said.

Dave Burstein, editor of the DSL Prime broadband industry newsletter, believes a reasonable cost for the map would be less than $30 million.

The map should reveal what most individuals already know: whether their homes can get broadband and how fast it is. Officially, the goal for the map is to help shape broadband policy and determine where best to invest government funds. It may also help consumers shopping for Internet service.

However, the map won't be ready in time to influence the first round of broadband grants and loans funded by the stimulus package. That money will start going out this fall. And the map probably won't be finished before February's scheduled release of a national broadband plan being developed by the Federal Communications Commission.

About two-thirds of U.S. homes already have broadband. It's available to many more, perhaps 90% of homes, but the figure is uncertain because of the lack of authoritative nationwide studies.

When the Pew Internet and American Life Project surveyed people who didn't have broadband in 2007 and 2008, it found that most of them weren't interested in it, found the Internet too hard to use or didn't have computers. Lack of available broadband was the third-most common reason.

Still, there is concern that the U.S. is falling behind other countries in the reach and speed of its Internet connections, and that this might hinder economic growth. Advocates of expanding broadband also worry that some rural areas might never get high-speed Internet because service providers don't see a payoff in extending their lines there.

Mark Seifert, who is overseeing the broadband grant and mapping programs at the NTIA, offers several reasons the U.S. 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 "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, since much of the mapping data will come from phone and cable companies, the NTIA wants the information to be independently verified -- 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," Seifert said. "Data costs money."

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