A Crowd-Sourced National Communications Census

My last tour of duty in DC was Chief Technology Officer at the Center
for American Progress. One of the fun things I got to do was figure out
what everybody else did, including my fellow Senior Fellows, the folks
that generated most of the policy work, many of whom are now occupying
senior posts in the new administration.

One of the most fascinating was Mark Lloyd. An experienced Emmy-winning television
producer, communications lawyer, and community activist, Mark is the
author of a well-regarded book about communications and democracy and numerous columns. He’s currently at the Leadership Conference for Civil

The project Mark Lloyd was working on was a National Broadband Map to show our true
communications capabilities. And, he wanted to crowd-source the map from community
groups, supplementing that with census and other data from several different places to create a big mash-up. This was in 2005, around the same time Adrian Holovaty was thinking about chicagocrime.org.

I think the time is now ripe for this project, and when the new folks at the FCC asked me what I thought they should look at I pitched Mark’s idea (they’re reaching out to lots and lots of folks, which is a great sign). I asked for posting privileges here at Radar so I could pitch the idea to the Internet as well since I’m taking your name in vain as the folks that would make this happen.

The FCC has been charged to draft a National Broadband Plan next year. They’ve hired Blair Levin to run this process and he’s he started his new job in overdrive.
But, if we’re going to plan for the future, we have to know where we are today. When it comes to how we access communications in the United States, we really have no idea what we have and where it is.

The FCC collects broadband deployment statistics from industry. But, the
statistics are gross. If one site in a zip code has broadband, the whole area is considered high-speed. And, broadband is defined as 256 kbps in any one direction. Mark Lloyd is a long-time critic of these statistics: here are his 2004 columns on
Games at the FCC
Up With Iceland.

Since we don’t have good statistics, our policy makers can’t make good policies. That
is apparent in two areas:

  • First, we don’t have an accurate ranking of our competitiveness compared to other
    countries. Each country measures broadband differently, and as you’ve seen we
    kind of cheat and say broadband is 256 kbps. Our policy makers have no idea
    how totally awful our communications capabilities are compared with,
    for example, Japan or Korea, where broadband starts at 100 mbps.
    What that means is that most of the international rankings we see in the
    papers from the ITU and OECD are just nonsense.
  • Second, we don’t have an accurate idea of the extent of the digital divide here in the U.S. Our
    inner cities, rural areas, and schools are all greatly under-served and our
    policy makers can’t see that when they administer programs such as the
    billion-dollar boondoggle that is the
    Universal Service Fund.

To the FCC’s credit, the new Chairman is well aware of these problems, and has commissioned Harvard’s Berkman Center to
review the existing data.
That’s a great start, but I don’t think you can just count on the industry and on consulting firms to get a good picture of our capabilities. I think you need hit the streets and collect real data.

To create a National Communications Census, the FCC could utilize two techniques:

  • First is basic survey science. Put a form up that allows people to enter their
    address, and answer questions: Is DSL available? Do you have it? Do you have
    cable Internet? Do you think it works well? Do you have cell coverage? What carrier? Do you have your own Wi-Fi? Can you access public Wi-Fi? In addition to a form on the FCC web site, an API would be great so people could develop their own apps for entering data from volunteer census workers on the streets.
  • Second is basic network research. Develop an API that allows an application to enter information such as Wi-Fi signal strength at a given location, cell carrier signal strength, and how many Wi-Fi networks are seen. Then, encourage people to develop iPhone, Android, and other applications to collect the data. Phones are actually great little limited-purpose spectrum analyzers. On your iPhone, for example, call *3001#12345#* and you can enter field test mode.

With both the survey and the data collection, the FCC can appeal to community groups to go out and war drive or poll-take in inner cities and rural areas so we can finally get a good picture of who has what. This is a lot of data that might come in, so rather than reinvent the wheel, it makes sense to partner with some non-profit network research operation like M-Lab which has the oomph to absorb an applications like this and can also make the data available
downstream to researchers, cartographers, and mashup artists.

Mapping our national communications capability is something the FCC needs to do for itself so it can create better plans, but also for state and local governments who are planning their infrastructure, and to the communications industry that needs to know
how and where to expand. A census would also of great use to ordinary consumers, who could use it see who has decent cell coverage, where to find Wi-Fi, or which Internet Service Provider works best in a given area.

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