Remarks by Assistant Secretary Strickling at the Broadband Communities Summit

Topics/Subtopics: 
April 25, 2012

Remarks by Lawrence E. Strickling

Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information

at the

Broadband Communities Summit

Dallas, Texas

April 25, 2012

As prepared for delivery

Thank you, Hilda. I want to thank Broadband Communities for selecting NTIA to receive its Cornerstone Award. The National Broadband Map is the result of an ambitious and unprecedented effort to create America’s first public, searchable nationwide map of broadband Internet availability. It has only been possible because of the work of many people across the country whom I would like to recognize now. 

First I would like to thank Anne Neville, who directs the State Broadband Initiative at NTIA.  She, more than any other person, is responsible for the map and collection of data that you are honoring today. So, Anne, if you are watching online, thank you and congratulations.

Next, I want to recognize the efforts of our state partners who collect and verify the data on broadband availability in the states. There would be no map without the active engagement of the states. Many of the state representatives are here today, and I ask them to stand and be recognized for their work.  

Let me take a minute to talk about how this collaboration works. The foundation for the map is an extensive, publicly available dataset – more than 20 million records – that shows where broadband is available, the technology used to provide the service, the maximum advertised speeds, and the names of the service providers. Nearly 1,800 providers are represented in the map, providing the most comprehensive and granular view of broadband availability to date in the United States. We also collect the locations of community anchor institutions and the broadband services that they adopt.

Broadband providers supply base data to the states, who then compare that data to other sources of information such as state road maps, aerial photography, and drive tests. In fact, Tara Thue, who runs the program in Utah, told me that her representatives drove over 9,000 miles of roads last year to verify wireless provider speeds.

When the states find issues or discrepancies with the data provided by industry, they work out those issues and in some cases produce substantial changes that result in a better quality product.

Once the data arrives at NTIA, we, together with our partners at the FCC, review the data at a national level. Often we’re able to spot potential errors because of a pattern across all states, something an individual state might not be able to identify.

Overall, it requires a tremendous and collaborative effort to assemble the data for the National Broadband Map, which we do twice a year.

Even after we post an update, we continue to work on the accuracy of the dataset. We offer a crowdsourcing feature to the public so that folks can alert us if, say, a list of local broadband providers is incomplete or incorrect. The tool has already drawn more than 44,000 submissions, many of which confirm the map’s underlying data. In other cases, the public has identified errors, which we pass on to our grantees to support their ongoing data verification efforts.

The map serves many types of users. Business owners and consumers can find the broadband options available to them. Economic developers can use the map to market particular communities to businesses and residents looking to locate in areas where there are cutting-edge telecommunications services. Research firms and academics can use the data in a range of analyses. Policymakers can use the map to help craft policies that support private or public sector investment in broadband. And application developers can combine the data with additional information for further analysis or other new uses.

For example, states are using the data as they create long-term plans to boost broadband access and adoption. We hear that regional teams, like those in Colorado, are using the data to assess the needs of their communities.  In Virginia, our grantee is using the broadband availability data to better understand the broadband capacity of individual healthcare facilities. This work will enable the state to leverage the funding for electronic medical records and better connect a maze of health care services to everyday consumers.

Of course we only know a fraction of the ways in which the map is being used, given that the site has had about 650,000 users.  We are always interested to learn more and welcome any feedback you have. We also want to know if you think there is other information that we should include and, if so, how we should incorporate it.

So, with all the resources that have gone into the map and dataset, what have we learned?

Of course, the real advance here is the granularity of the data we can present – down to the Census block level. While we should not be surprised that rolling up the data to a national level confirms that there is a disparity between availability of broadband in urban areas as compared to rural areas, now we can focus in to identify the specific areas that lag the most.

The other big advantage of the map is the ability to evaluate availability according to different speed tiers. We know that speed increasingly is an issue in terms of evaluating availability – especially for anchor institutions, but increasingly for consumers as well.

For example, we know that 99 percent of urban residents have access to download speeds of 6 Mbps but only 79 percent of rural communities have the same access. At higher speeds, the disparity is more striking. At 25 Mbps, 73 percent of urban residents can find service but only 36 percent of rural residents.

And this disparity exists, to a greater or lesser extent, in nearly every state. In only two states and the District of Columbia does 95 percent of the population have the ability to subscribe to 25 Mbps of service.

This issue of adequate speed levels was one of the key factors we used to develop our funding philosophy for the infrastructure portion of the broadband grants program. We called this our “comprehensive communities” approach, where we focused our grant dollars to expand middle mile capacity in underserved areas as well as to build out to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals, and libraries whose speed requirements are substantially greater than those of most consumers. As our chief of staff Angie Simpson said yesterday, this approach required each of our applicants to become economic development agencies as they had to assess the broadband needs of the communities in order to craft their applications.

I am pleased to see that the rigor we required in the application process is now paying off as our grantees are in the thick of building their projects. As of the end of last year, our grantees had deployed or upgraded more than 45,000 miles of broadband infrastructure and had connected or improved service to more than 6,000 anchor institutions across 35 states. We also funded public computer centers and those grantees installed more than 29,000 workstations by the end of 2011. For sustainable broadband adoption projects, our third areas of funding, grantees provided more than 5.9 million hours of technology training to approximately 1.7 million participants.  And grantees report that their programs have already led to a total of more than 260,000 new broadband subscribers, including businesses.

Just as important is the fact that these projects, funded by the Recovery Act, are creating jobs. In fact, grantees reported approximately 4,000 jobs for the last quarter of 2011.

Since many of our grantees are here in the audience, I have to be cautious in selecting any to use as examples of the program. But I did recently attend a meeting in Maryland that focused on how its statewide broadband network can benefit anchor institutions. The project, led by Lori Sherwood and Ira Levy, who are here, will reach all of Maryland’s 24 counties and connect more than 1,000 anchor institutions at speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second. The grantee has already begun connecting anchors such as fire stations and elementary schools.  Lori and Ira expect to have about 230 anchor institutions connected by the summer. And already they have created at least 694 jobs in construction, engineering and project management.

Yesterday I learned that the Appalachian Regional Commission has awarded a grant to build on and extend this network in western Maryland, so that this project is also an example of how our investment is priming the pump for additional investments by public and private entities.

These projects are leading to jobs in other ways. Many of our public computer centers have reported that folks are coming in for job skills training, applying for jobs online, and then getting hired. Angie reported yesterday on two people who started and ran an online business out of public computer centers in West Virginia and Missouri, and then made enough money to set up shop on their own.

These are all great stories and we want to continue to collect and publicize them. But all of us need to remain committed to expanding broadband wherever and whenever we can. The stakes for our growth and competitiveness of our economy are enormous. One researcher, Len Waverman, has calculated that the United States could increase its gross domestic product by $100 billion if we could get 10 percent more people to adopt broadband service.

Improving adoption is key to bringing the benefits of broadband to our economy and is an area of great focus at NTIA. Each year, at our direction, the Census Bureau conducts a survey of 54,000 households. Last year, our research reported that only 68 percent of households subscribe to broadband. So even though basic broadband is available to 90 – 95 percent of the population, nearly a third of households – more than 100 million Americans – do not have broadband at home. And approximately one in five households – 20 percent – do not use the Internet anywhere.

This is a troubling statistic in the 21st century economy, when broadband access and digital literacy skills are needed to compete in the workforce. And it is even more troubling when we hear what Americans tell us about why they don’t adopt broadband. Nearly half of non-adopting households cited a lack of interest or need as the primary reason.

We’re responding to this situation with the $250 million of sustainable broadband adoption projects and the $200 million of public computer center projects that I mentioned earlier. Our grantees are experimenting with all manner of creative and innovative programs to educate and train folks on how to use broadband and to equip them with low-cost devices and services to allow them to subscribe. We have been assembling the materials created in these programs on our digital literacy portal, which makes these tools available to the country.

Let me wrap up with a few minutes on what the future has in store for our programs.

First and foremost, our immediate focus is to ensure that our grantees complete their projects on time and on budget and deliver the benefits promised to their communities. We will intervene when needed to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not wasted and to provide technical assistance where we can.

Second, we are already looking for opportunities to expand our projects where we can. Many of our grantees, through their able management of their projects, are finding savings in their budgets and we want to work with them to find ways to put those dollars to work in the project – by adding connections to additional anchor institutions or extending a fiber route to connect with a nearby network.

Third, we have put a program into place to perform a multi-year evaluation of the economic and social benefits delivered by these projects. The results of this study will help inform policymakers on the return on investment from our grants as well as to identify key factors of performance and success.

Fourth, as we deal with the issue of getting broadband services to the hardest-to-reach areas in this country, we may be helped by the recent legislation passed by Congress to create a national, interoperable public safety broadband network. Congress has allocated 20 megahertz of spectrum and $7 billion of spectrum auction revenues to provide our first responders with a modern broadband network. The network will be designed, built, and operated under the auspices of an organization called FirstNet, which is being organized as an independent authority within my agency, NTIA. The legislation puts special emphasis on rural deployment and provides that to the extent the dedicated spectrum is not needed by public safety agencies, it may be used to provide commercial service under certain conditions. So, in addition to the valuable work being performed by the Rural Utilities Service through its grant and loan program for rural broadband and the reform by the Federal Communications Commission to apply universal service funds to rural broadband expansion, we may have yet another tool in our kit to expand broadband access in rural America.

Fifth, our funding to the states to collect the data for the national broadband map expires in 2015 so we will need to begin to strategize about the future of the map and, assuming we can continue the program as is, how to secure funding for the states for the future.

Finally, upon completion of the broadband grants, NTIA will have the single best assemblage of talent, knowledge, and information on broadband access and adoption of any organization in the country. We are beginning to think about how we can mobilize our team in the post-grant environment to continue to drive the expansion of broadband access and availability in the U.S. I would welcome all of you, consumers or customers of such services, to share your thoughts and ideas as to how we could focus our team to support, in a measureable way, the continued growth of broadband in this country. We’re just starting the discussion internally at NTIA but we would welcome your thoughts even now.

Thank you again for recognizing NTIA’s work on the National Broadband Map, and I wish more bandwidth for everyone.