Connected Nation communications director Jessica Ditto said it is hiring a third-party to help turn the millions of raw data points it receives into readable maps.
“To meet the aggressive deadlines NTIA has set, we thought the most cost-effective and efficient manner would be to subcontract some of the work,” she said. “That way, when the heavy lifting is done, we won’t have extra permanent employees.”
Ditto added that the contractors will not know which telecom provider’s data they are processing in order to prevent any bias in the maps.
On the concerns over industry ties, she said the majority of Connected Nation’s funding comes from public foundations and that only a “small percentage” comes from telecom firms.
“In every state we’ve had the benefit of service providers working with us and voluntarily giving us data about their coverage,” she said. “That’s been very successful.”
NTIA said subcontracts are common among the grantees, which have to complete most of the data collection by Feb. 1, followed by rolling deadlines. The entire national map will be available to the public by Feb. 17, 2011.
“No matter who is the designee, we are providing the same amount of scrutiny and oversight,” said NTIA spokeswoman Jessica Schafer. She said NTIA is aware of subcontracting.
Only non-profit groups and independent agencies are eligible to receive broadband grants under the Broadband Data Improvement Act that was passed last year and funded by the stimulus package. That law was spearheaded by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who were leery of private mapping firms’ conflicts of interest in drawing up the maps that would direct funding.
Connected Nation began as an organization known as Connect Kentucky in 2004 to bring broadband to rural parts of the state. It then started similar programs in other states, including Tennessee and Ohio. So far, Connected Nation has received stimulus grants for one U.S. territory and 12 states, including Alaska and Kansas.
The organization says its maps show where all Internet companies—both large and small—provide service in a state. It then lets residents see the map and report discrepancies. Its maps do not show the speed or type of connections.
But some states, including Kentucky, have said they cannot verify Connected Nation’s maps and that they overestimated Internet coverage.
Connected Nation partnered with Colorado earlier this year to create a state-wide map of Internet access, as was mandated by the state legislature. The map, which was made public this month, showed that about 97 percent of the state’s population has Internet access.
“The percentage as a whole was higher than we had expected,” said Dara Hessee, spokeswoman for Colorado’s Office of Information Technology. A closer look at the maps showed that, on a county-by-county basis, about 50 percent of residents had access.
The state requirements differed from NTIA’s requirements. After receiving a $2.1 million mapping grant, Colorado is selecting another vendor for the mapping process.
Hessee said the Connected Nation map will serve as a foundation for the stimulus-funded map.
“Can I say it is 100 percent accurate? We don’t know,” she said, “We understand it’s a work in progress and will be validated over time.”
The questions about Connected Nation have sparked broader concerns about how effectively the stimulus money is being spent.
About half of the $7 billion for broadband expansion projects will have been doled out by the end of the year—well before mapping data from individual states is available to show where government funding is needed most.
And maps that do not include specific details about the speeds and type of connections—Cable, DSL or dial-up—will not be very helpful, said Craig Settles, a broadband consultant in California.
“We’ve put the cart before the horse on this,” he said. “It’s a waste of money if you end up with a colorful map.”
Settles said the mapping process should also take into account the types of access residents and businesses need now and will need five years down the road. For example, some may have more use for faster wireless services than fiber services directly to their home.
“It shouldn’t be a static map,” he said. “By the time we build networks based on this big map, broadband technologies will have changed three times.”