A chat with Connected Nation’s CEO

The first substantive exchange is establishing a nondisclosure agreement. They’re going to provide us whatever type of data they have in any form that allows us to demonstrate where they provide service. We literally have companies fax in a map with lines drawn in that say, “Here’s where we provide service.” Someone might send addresses covered by their network. We have to normalize all that so we can present it as a covered area on a map.

The validation process is something we invest as heavily in as the data collection. Once we receive the data from providers, we translate it into a GIS format and then validate it by sending it back to provider and ask if it accurately represents where they provide service. There will be additions, deletions and other changes.

Our engineers will then spot-check that their (broadband network) equipment is actually where they say it is. They use spectrum analyzers to provide wireless analysis. Then we do telephone surveys with homes and businesses to check their availability.

How will you update the maps as more recent data comes in?

With our interactive maps, the data is automatically updated. Part of why these interactive maps are so important is that they allow the state and [Commerce Department] to do scenario-building exercises for prospective grants. We’ll be able to look at the maps and say what the impact will be, how many low-income households can be served, how many elderly customers can be reached. You can look at the return on investment on future grants.

The maps can also demonstrate survey research going on in the state. Not only are you going to be able to look at the supply-side scenario but also look at the demand side that can further inform planning for the state.

Connected Nation has been criticized for accepting money from the large telecom companies. How much money comes from companies like AT&T and Verizon?

{mosads}Financially, I think it’s been less than two percent. That money is used primarily for a program called No Child Left Offline. That money has been used to put computers in the hands of families that couldn’t afford them. It hasn’t been operational funding. It’s been flow-through funding to help us put computers in communities. The level of funding [from telecom companies] is going to drop.

We were blazing a trail where no maps had ever before existed. One of the ways to solve the problem was to build a rapport with companies that own the data we needed to make the maps. We established our organization from the beginning as a public-private partnership.

That’s why from the very beginning private companies have been involved. That’s why we were able to create the first map.

How do you respond to the argument that your organization is too close to the telecom companies whose services you are mapping? Is there a conflict of interest?

We’ve not apologized for the fact that we’ve accomplished what we have by creating true public-private partnerships. We’ve wanted private companies to be at the table. In fact, that’s part of why you see in the Recovery Act a 20 percent match requirement. The original thinking was that there would be on some level private sector funding.

State budgets alone just cannot support the amount of work needed to be done to get to broadband environment to where it needs to be.

Is there anything in particular that you’d like the FCC to include in its National Broadband Plan?

We hope they recognize the need to invest on the demand side. So much of the stimulus is focused on the supply side. It’s easy to lose track of the fact that 90 percent of the country has some access to broadband today but only 60 percent chooses to use it.

What our data demonstrates is that we have to address the affordability issue, but even more than that we have the relevancy issue we have to be addressed.

They’re saying they just don’t need it. That tells us that there’s a huge need for us to be in communities working with folks who aren’t able to take advantage of the broadband. That’s the low-hanging fruit across the country.

We have to demonstrate a return on investment for using Skype or other services. It’s not something that can be diagnosed from afar. It’s not an inexpensive proposition. It takes feet on the street. It takes being in communities and with people to relate to particular communities to understand those barriers.


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