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50 years in the quest to understand broadband deployment Thumbnail Image

50 years in the quest to understand broadband deployment

The quest for a better broadband map didn’t begin yesterday. 

But the combination of an engaged community of academic researchers, and the momentum behind the urgent need to “truth check” the claims of internet service providers brings us to a propitious moment for our country.

Beginning on Friday, September 16, 2022, TPRC50 opens here in Washington, D.C. 

Officially the 50th Annual Research Conference on Communications, Information and Internet Policy, TPRC is the “must-attend” gathering of all the broadband and telecommunications geeks. It’s been around since the very foundation of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

In fact, NTIA — which is the executive-branch agency responsible for the administration’s telecom policy — had just formed at the time of the first Telecommunications Policy Research Conference on November 17, 1972.

This persistent crowd has been considering telecommunications innovation, public utilities, radio frequency spectrum and media ownership for a half-century now. The first conference program seems refreshingly topical.

Besides being a persistent crowd, TPRC’s strength is its inclusive nature. The crowd that attends this academic conference caters equally to industry and to the university and non-profit community.

This year - with the rollout of the largest federal funding in broadband infrastructure history - the need for TPRC is urgent and vital. 

NTIA is leading the charge with an unprecedented amount of $42.5 billion in broadband infrastructure funding for last-mile internet deployment. Participants in the Broadband Grants Community should take advantage of this opportunity to bring the passion and the expertise of TPRC to bear on the broadband data and measurement problems that must be solved to successfully role out the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

How TPRC has traversed the issue of broadband data in the past

My own history with TPRC goes back some time, but not quite 50 years. I began attending TPRC in 2006, and it was at the events in that year, and the years that followed, that I teamed up with my TPRC-ers to launch a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to get access to broadband data.

I’ve been a strong advocate of the importance of public and open broadband data for more than 15 years. (See “U.S. broadband infrastructure investments need transparency,” ArsTechnica, February 10, 2009.) That op-ed recounts our efforts to obtain FCC Form 477 data in 2006 and 2007, followed by founding BroadbandCensus.com in January 2008 to crowdsource the collection of broadband speed and availability data.

The passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February 2009 opened up even more opportunities for critical thinking about the kinds of broadband data necessary for a national broadband building. 

The ARRA was the largest federal investment of broadband funds, up until that point. And, at the 2009 TPRC, one of the highlights was an informal session on “Beer and Broadband Mapping” 

I had the great pleasure to team up with the now-late Charles Benton, who emphasized this vital principal: Broadband data needs to be publicly available in order to be verified and scrutinized.

This issue never seems to die. Broadband.money is working with the Broadband Mapping Coalition, an arm of the digital equity group The Marconi Society, to promote the public’s engagement with the Federal Communications’ Fabric mapping initiative. The goal is to make sure that the process is truly open to public oversight and input as the U.S. Commerce Department implements the largest expenditure of federal broadband funds in history.

What to look for at this year’s TPRC

As is typical, TPRC in 2022 is broken into a half-dozen track or topics, including “Broadband,” “Spectrum, “Digital Economy, “Privacy,” “Internet Inequalities” and others. The “Broadband” segment this year is particularly rich, with nine sessions.

With an eye toward those in the Broadband Grants community who are most interested in “Broadband Performance,” Broadband Competition,” and “Broadband Technology and Policy,” I’ve linked to highlight several core sessions. 

The Broadband.Money team will be focusing our coverage of TPRC this year on these sessions. (But we invite members of the community attending TPRC to post as well!)

Broadband Performance

On Friday at 11:05 a.m., David Reed of the University of Colorado at Boulder will moderate a session on core aspects of broadband data, including broadband labels and metrics for broadband access, including a presentation by MIT’s David Clark and MIT’s Sara Wedeman.

A follow-up session on the same topic will be moderated by Bob Cannon of NTIA, and will feature research on quality in competition among ISPs, of whether “your mileage my vary” on consumer internet performance, and on crowdsourcing quality of service measurements, on Saturday at 11:05 a.m.

Broadband Competition, Broadband Technology and Policy and COVID

Sessions on these above topics are also critical for members of the TPRC attendees who are part of the Broadband Grants Community. 

A session on “COVID Impacts on Communication” will highlight broadband infrastructure and school district policies by Kenneth Flamm on Friday at 4:05 p.m. 

And a discussion of “Best Practices for Collecting Speed Test Data” will be part of a discussion on Saturday at 9 a.m. 

And don’t miss Technology Policy Institute’s Scott Wallsten’s moderation of a session, also on Saturday at 9 a.m., on “Broadband Technology Policy” that includes a spatial analysis of Wi-Fi locations, delivering affordable and universal broadband and the changing role of internet protocols.

What Broadband.Money and TPRC attendees can should bring to the research table

Broadband.money is joining the discussion this year by bringing you our research and data visualizations in the form of our maps of internet performance and demographics. They show where investment is needed independently and in comparison to the data provided by internet service providers themselves.

For an example of how this works, please take a look at this blog post by Broadband.money’s Director of Digital Community Sarah Lai Stirland — who will also attend this year's conference. Please feel free to stop by and introduce yourself.

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