Anything but Maps

I guess this is the time of the year when governments start thinking about what should be put into next year’s budget. I’ve been party to at least three conversations over the last few weeks talking about how a budget priority ought to be to develop better mapping for broadband. These conversations make me cringe, because I think that maps ought to be the last priority – I have yet to see maps produce anything useful.

There are two kinds of maps. One is a map of broadband speeds. I’ve written about this a number of times. As long as the data in these maps is provided by ISPs the data will be highly suspect and nearly useless. No ISP is going to admit to having poor broadband on a map if their public relations posture is that they offer great broadband speeds. For technologies like DSL, the amount of broadband available can literally vary by customer with two neighbors with different speeds due to local issues with the copper. Even the idea of letting households report their speeds won’t work since users might have slow speeds due to non-network issues such as poor inside wiring or the use of an obsolete WiFi router. I know one of the stated purposes of these maps is to help spur politicians to fund broadband solutions, but since these maps overstate broadband coverage they probably do more harm than good.

The other kind of map, and the one I heard discussed recently, is one that shows the location of all of the fiber in a state or a county. On the surface this sounds like a good idea, because who wouldn’t want to know where somebody has already built fiber? But in practical terms this usually turns out to be more of an effort to identify where you can’t connect to fiber, because a huge portion of existing fiber in any community is off limits to new fiber ventures. I often hear the lament. Consider some of the following:

  • There are a number of entities that are not going to tell you the specific location of their fiber unless there is somehow an inescapable law forcing them to do so. Electric companies rarely share fibers and don’t want to show specific fiber assets because of concern for the safety of the electric grid. Cable companies almost never let a competitor share their existing fiber. Telcos are generally willing to sell expensive special access circuits anywhere they have fiber, but because of security concerns don’t like sharing their detailed maps.
  • Fibers can be off limits for other reasons. One of the most aggravating situations is fiber funded by a state or other government entity that cannot be shared with others. I know of several states that have extensive gigabit networks to anchor institutions, but which prohibit ISPs and even local governments from sharing the fiber. This is sometimes due to a state law which prohibits the government from using their assets to benefit non-state ventures, but often these prohibitions are due to lobbying during the funding process by the big ISPs who don’t want competition.
  • Fiber varies in condition. Many fibers built decades ago are in bad shape if they weren’t installed and maintained properly. Neglected conduits can fill up with dirt over time and become unusable. Fibers can be dead because a technician snipped a fiber somewhere in the network and didn’t resplice.
  • Fiber without access points can be worthless. It doesn’t do any good to get access to a fiber if the only place you can access it is miles from where you want to use it. Fiber owners are leery about creating new access points on existing fiber routes. The construction process of getting such access can accidently cut the fiber. They also know that adding any new splices to a fiber adds degradation and reduces the eventual life o the fiber. This means that in many cases, even when fiber can be shared, it can only be done so with terms dictated by the fiber owner.
  • Fiber owners rarely let outsiders have physical access to the fiber, meaning that a new connector must pay the owner for the labor to get access. I’ve seen fiber owners not give access due only to the fact that they don’t have the spare labor force in an area to support anything but their own needs.
  • Long haul fibers often are just passing through. I worked with a city that was right next to a major fiber route along an interstate that connected two major cities. They were amazed to find out that no carrier on that fiber was willing to serve them. The carriers only wanted to sell fiber routes between the two big markets and were not willing to kill a lucrative fiber to serve one smaller customer.

Spending the money to create a map of existing fiber is mostly a fool’s errand. Many of the fiber owners won’t cooperate. Even when they do, they are unlikely to provide details about where they might or might not allow access to the fiber – something they often only determine when they get a specific request.

Unfortunately, mapping sounds like a logical thing to do and it’s something that politicians can latch only to show they care about broadband shortages. I’ve repeatedly heard the argument that we can’t start to solve the broadband issue until we know what we already have in place. The reality is that it’s nearly impossible to create a meaningful map, and even should you do so it’s not going to really show fiber that is actually available for use. My advice is to use scarce broadband funds for anything else but mapping. There are plenty of unscrupulous consultants who will take money to create maps that they know will be worthless.

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