House Backs Broadband Mapping Bill

A House subcommittee controlled by Democrats approved draft legislation last Wednesday that would require federal and state agencies to cooperate in accurately collecting data on the availability and penetration of high-speed Internet access across the country.

The legislation isn’t expected to sail through with minority Republican support until agreement is reached on the use of subscriber data that cable and phone companies would need to report to a division of the U.S. Commerce Department.

The bill is backed by telecom policy veteran Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who has blasted the Bush administration for letting the U.S. tumble to 15th place in controversial world broadband performance rankings kept by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Among other things, Markey’s bill would require the Federal Communications Commission to conduct an annual survey that examines all broadband technologies that have been deployed, where they have been deployed, the number of consumers that subscribe and the data speeds offered. The FCC would need to compare its findings with country data from around the globe.

The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration would need to create a map showing in detail where broadband technology is available and where it is not. NTIA’s would be authorized to collect data from the FCC and broadband providers. State agencies would receive at least $8 million annually in federal funds to assist NTIA’s collection.

If enacted, the bill could provide the empirical foundation that Markey and other House Democrats appear to want to justify passage of new legislation calling for more government involvement in setting broadband goals for the country, in contrast with Republican policy emphasizing deregulation with minimal government oversight.

“The state of knowledge around the status of broadband services in the United States also affects the ability of policymakers to make sound decisions,” Markey said. “The federal government can do a much better job in reforming multibillion dollar grant and subsidy programs, whether at the Rural Utilities Service or the universal service program at the FCC.”

The bill, which has not been formally introduced, was approved by unanimous voice vote by the Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee headed by Markey, who pledged to iron out differences with Republicans before a vote by the full Energy and Commerce Committee.

Rep. Joe Barton (D-Texas), the senior democrat on the full committee, said he was concerned that Markey’s bill is trying to “collect competitively sensitive subscriber data” from broadband providers.

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Penn.) agreed on the need to protect sensitive company data but only up to a point, otherwise the purpose of the bill would be frustrated.

“I don’t want to give everybody access to proprietary information, but there has got to be a way to present the data in an open fashion,” Doyle said.

The bill, called the Broadband Census of America Act, is supported by the cable industry’s largest trade organization, probably because any government survey would show that cable-modem service is widely available and about to leap from top broadband speeds of 5 Megabits per second to “wideband” speeds approaching 150 Mbps.

“Cable’s broadband service is currently available to 94% of all U.S. households; however, improved data about the availability and speed of all broadband offerings will help accomplish the important goal of further promoting ubiquitous broadband availability for all Americans,” National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow said in statement released shortly after the committee vote.