Greater Lafayette Information Technology Society

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by Wally Hubbard, Avosot
March 9, 2011

Broadband.gov and Tippecanoe County

The FCC opened its new broadband.gov site this year on February 17, mapping and ranking the availability of broadband connections in the U.S. It defines broadband as high-speed internet service that is always on. It ranks states and counties by several metrics, and Indiana shows up in both the top 20 and bottom 5 depending on the metric. The site is interesting but not without its problems, particularly when it tries to map the availability of fiber optic connections.


Tippecanoe County vs. U.S.: Broadband Availability
March 6, 2011
Technology and Speed Chart

Another page compares Tippecanoe County to the whole country using bar charts and percentages, and things don't look so bad. The key section of the page is shown and linked here. In the first two graphs, the narrow gold bar represents Tippecanoe County, and the lighter bar represents the nation. The charts indicate Tippecanoe County is ahead of average when it comes to connections, and behind when it comes to speed.

The data was collected before June of 2010, and the agency plans to update the site's data every six months. Each chart unhelpfully lists the source as "API Call," which is probably nice for the programmers but of little use to citizens who want to know who collected the data. The site is still in the beta phase, and one can hope the actual source of the data will eventually appear and be more than just "FCC".

The page also charts the Broadband Speed Test, which shows the results of tests initiated by site visitors from within Tippecanoe County. You can run your own test. The chart shows the fastest connections are at schools, libraries and community centers, while the slowest are mobile.


Fiber Fiction?

Overlaid Maps
Fiber availability maps overlaid

Broadband.gov seems to be reasonably accurate in showing wired and wireless access being available over most of Tippecanoe County, but the depiction of where fiber connections are available is mostly wrong.

To show what's wrong, I overlaid Indiana Dataline's map of local fiber routes, shown in red and blue lines, on broadband.gov's map, which highlights fiber territory in blue. (Click on the map image to see the entire county and you will get a better idea of just how wrong it is). Broadband.gov shows fiber available from West Lafayette to almost all of Tippecanoe County to the north and west, even along the sparsley-inhabited north side of the Wabash as it winds into Warren County. Fiber is not shown as being available in southern Lafayette, nor generally south and east of the Wabash.

"My guess is, the areas shown are ZIP Code areas," says Steve Belter, who maintains and periodically updates two local maps at Indiana Dataline. "So if a provider says that they have one customer using fiber in a ZIP Code, or that they could offer fiber to one customer in a ZIP Code, then the map shows fiber is available to everyone in 47906. This may be a useful oversimplification when you’re looking at the entire U.S.A., but it isn’t helpful at the neighborhood or street block level." The blue area on the broadband.gov map does more or less fill the outline of ZIP Codes 47906, 47904 and 47901.

The Indiana Office of Technology used a federal grant to collect and submit much of the broadband information used by the FCC and has posted several maps on its web site. The site claims it has information for 880,000 Census blocks, and explains that if any part of a Census block has broadband access, the whole block is marked as having access.

Map
Census blocks outside the ZIP Code

It turns out that the Tippecanoe County information went through a chain of agencies, and got changed in a bureaucratic version of the old party game Telephone. "If this was the survey I remember," says Belter, "the state asked us for fiber availability by ZIP Code." Wintek submitted the information years ago to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commision, which later gave it to the Indiana Office of Technology's Geographic Information Office. Then it went to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and they gave it to the FCC, according my reading of the online records. At some point, someone converted the ZIP Codes to Census blocks, marking every block as having fiber availability. If a ZIP Code boundary split a Census block, the whole block was added, enlarging the area beyond the ZIP Code boundary.

The data for Clinton County is also visible on the maps, near Rossville. It was provided by the Mulberry Telephone Cooperative and avoided the same fate; it is limited to a dozen or so Census blocks.

Other maps of fiber circuits or availability in Indiana: IFN, Windstream (KDL), Smithville, Zayo, Verizon/AT&T/Comcast, or do a Google search.

Open Source Maps

Rather than use Google or Bing maps, or use federal data directly, the site relies on maps from CloudMade, a two-year-old firm based in Menlo Park, California, and in London and other international cities. The map data is from the OpenStreetMap project, which lets users update street and landmark information for their local areas—something like what Wikipedia allows.

Wikipedia's entry on the company notes CloudMade has lost money each year, and that the OpenStreetMap founder and CloudMade cofounder, Steve Coast, left in October 2010 and joined Microsoft and Bing Mobile. On his blog, Coast writes that Microsoft is now donating imagery to the OpenStreetMap project.

Slow Response, Browser Quirks

While the CloudMade base map tiles take a few seconds to load, it took more than two minutes for all the data associated with the map to arrive over my DSL connection, which clocked in at 720 kbps in the broadband.gov speed test. I think people with slow connections would be the most interested in learning about available speeds, but they will have to be patient while visiting this site. It also took more than three seconds for the overlay to change the first time each button was clicked. And then the blue overlays obliterate the other map information including streets and names.

I first visited using Internet Explorer 8, and in that browser the buttons didn't work right. After I figured out what was supposed to be happening, I returned via IE9 and everything seemed to be OK. A note on the site recommends visitors use Chrome or Firefox. I also tried the current versions of Safari and Opera and they seemed to work, too.

In summary, it's a good start toward documenting the state of U.S. broadband service, but with usability issues and other growing pains.