Today, the United States Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) unveiled a new National Broadband Map, which can be viewed at BroadbandMap.gov.
The map includes more than 25 million searchable records and it incorporates crowdsourced reporting. Built entirely upon WordPress, the map is also one of the largest implementations of open source and open data in government to date.
Importantly, the data behind the map shows that despite an increase in broadband adoption to 68%, a digital divide persists between citizens who have full access to the rich media of the 2011 Internet and those who are limited by geography or means.
The launch of a national map of broadband Internet access fulfills a Congressional mandate created by the 2009 federal stimulus, which directed regulators to collect better data to show which communities have broadband access — and which do not. The National Broadband Map is searchable, right down to individual census block.
“Broadband is as vital and transformative today as electricity was in the 20th century,” said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski in a press briefing today. “Millions live in areas where they can’t get access even if they want it.” Genachowski asserted that extending broadband access to the nearly one third of Americans still without high-speed Internet is essential for the United States to remain globally competitive. “
The FCC chairman also noted that the release of the map was not only important in terms of what it could tell legislators and regulators but that it was “also part of making government more open and participatory,” with respect to how it used technology to help citizens drive solutions.
As Anne Neville, director of the State Broadband Initiative at the NTIA, explains in the first post on the Broadband Map blog, crowdsourcing will be an important part of gathering more data. Wherever broadband speed data isn’t available, the Commerce Department wants people to submit reports using the speed test apps. By reporting dead zones, citizens can add further results to the database of more 2 million reports that have already been filed.
The creators of the map showed some social media savvy by providing a short URL for maps, like nbm.gov/8Z0j, and creating the @BroadbandMap Twitter account (though the account hadn’t sent any tweets at the time this post went live).
The designers of the map said during the press briefing that it embodied “the spirit of the Internet through open formats and protocols.” Specifically, the National Broadband Map was built on the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) familiar to open source developers everywhere. Currently, the site has around 35 RESTful APIs that will enable developers to write applications to look at specific providers. The open government data behind the National Broadband Map can also be downloaded for anyone to use. According to Commerce Department officials, this data will be updated twice a year over the next five years.
Responding to reporters’ questions on how the new map might be used by regulators, NTIA administrator Lawrence E. Strickling said that the National Broadband Map will be of great use to all manner of people, particularly for those interested in economic development. There is “nothing about our map that dictates that it will be regulatory,” he noted.
That said, at least one visualization from the online gallery could certainly be used to direct more truth in advertising: a comparison of advertised broadband speed vs actual speed shown in testing.
The FCC chairman and other staff have also indicated that a national map of broadband access will enable policy makers to better target resources toward bringing more people online, particularly if Universal Service Fund reform allows for increased funding of rural broadband. While data from more than 600 broadband providers is factored into the map, there’s still more that civic developers might do in working with user-submitted data and government data to show how much choice consumers have in broadband access in a specific area.
Given that access to the Internet has become increasingly important to economic, educational, professional and commercial opportunities, understanding who has it and who doesn’t is an important component of forming better public policy. Whether the United States government is able to successfully provide broadband access to all Americans through a combination of public and private partnerships and open spectrum reallocation is one of the central challenges of the moment.
UPDATE: As Tim O’Reilly pointed out today, you can use the broadband map to find the fastest ISP serving your address. The BroadbandMap.gov website is location-aware, so let it find your location and explore. Ryan Faas has the story over at IT World, including the following two caveats:
One is that you see speed but not price. That means the average or potential speeds you see may be speeds you need to pay more to get (particularly for wired access, which is usually priced based on connection speed).
Another is that only the wireless carriers that own the towers and spectrum are listed. Any companies that rely on another carrier’s network won’t be listed. Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile, for example, won’t appear because they use Sprint’s network (though the Sprint information will apply to them). You may need to do a little homework if you don’t see certain carriers to discover who’s network they use.