Thursday, April 30, 2009

Texas Broadband: Two State Agencies Launch Broadband Mapping Project 04/30/08 (Editor's Note: This story, first posted at 6:31 am today, has been updated with several follow-on quotes, background on the national broadband mapping debate, and a citation that clarifies the going forward release of an RFP. Updates posted: 9:58 pm)

Two Texas state agencies have jointly issued a Request for Information (RFI) that launches the Lone Star State's first official effort to map broadband telecommunications services across the second largest (by area) state in the nation.

The RFI (download .PDF) was issued in tandem by the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) and the Public Utilities Commission of Texas (PUCT).

"New communication technologies are shrinking our world, and it is essential we make sure Texans don't miss out on these new tech tools," TDA Commissioner Todd Staples said in a joint agency press release issued on April 27. "Expanding broadband service is key to creating opportunities and efficiencies for all Texans, from private citizens and businesses to healthcare and education."

"We are happy to be working with the Agriculture Department on this broadband project, said Barry Smitherman, chairman of the Public Utility Commission, in the same release. "It is an important opportunity to bring broadband service to areas that do not have this valuable service today."

With a posted response deadline of May 15, the RFI lives up to its name as it requests a wide range of information from responding experienced broadband mapping companies. Firms are asked to describe how they would assign broadband metrics for unserved and underserved areas, and map the collected data.

The RFI references provisions of both the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), and of the Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2008 (BDIA) (downland full text .PDF) as providing potential funding for the project. ARRA carries $350 million in appropriations for broadband mapping, to be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the Commerce Department. BIDA (summary here, analysis by Mintz Levin here) directs the Commerce Secretary establish "grants to develop and implement statewide initiatives to identify and track the availability and adoption of broadband services within each state".

Importantly, the RFI document requests suggestions from respondents for funding sources for the 20% state cost matching requirement of BDIA, although it also suggests TDA plans to apply for broadband mapping funds under the ARRA.

The RFI requires that all respondents be " with proven experience in delivering statewide broadband mapping...that can specifically address the initiatives and capabilities set forth in the BDIA."

Mr. Rick Rhodes, Assistant Commissioner for Rural Economic Development at TDA, is administering the RFI process. Rural Economic Development is one of 7 divisions within TDA.

The RFI contemplates the issuance of a Request for Proposals (RFP), as it states, "This is not a request for proposals but the information submitted will be helpful in developing such a request once the federal agencies make administration decisions." The two tiered process to move Texas toward a broadband mapping project reflects the importance and magnitude of the data collection and geospatial effort involved.

One Texas based national trade association, the Rural Mobile Broadband Alliance USA (RuMBA) underlined the size and rural expanse that is Texas, stating that broadband mapping " particularly critical for Texas as we possess one of the largest land masses in the country, with border issues, and a need for reliable and available E911 Location services (Phase II) and weather alert systems. With Texas possessing one of US’s largest portions of unserved and underserved rural communities, the mapping process is clearly going to be a daunting process, requiring strong partners. Fortunately," said Managing Director Luisa Handem, "RuMBA is right here, and able to help.”

In the often controversial world of broadband policy, the erstwhile technical issues of broadband mapping have been particularly fraught with contention. With a report issued this March, a coalition of consumer and broadband advocates has called into question the data collection and mapping techniques of Connected Nation. The latter group is a non-profit partially supported by fees from large cable operators and telcos, and which has a Board of Directors that reads like a Who's Who of cable and telecom government relations executives. When conducting broadband mapping projects as it has in several states, Connected Nation serves as a third party entity to shield underlining broadband network information and subscriber counts which the carriers claim is proprietary information. Many regulators, consumer advocates, and municipalities consider this underlying data to be inherently public information.

Ms. Veronica Obregon, Commissioner Staples' Chief Communications Officer, stated in an e-mail of this afternoon to that the TDA will approach the data collection process "through the Request for Information" which will "select a third party company to collect the data to map the state. We plan to work with this company to create a productive map that will not compromise Homeland Security or third-party proprietary information."

The joint RFI issuance involves greater inter-agency cooperation than would be the case in most other states. Under Texas law the Commissioner of Agriculture, who heads TDA, is a statewide elected official. Current Commissioner Todd Staples (R-Palestine) was elected to his first 4 year term in 2006. The PUCT is comprised of a Chairman and 2 Commissioners, all of whom are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the State Legislature.

Gov. Rick Perry (R-Paint Creek) appointed PUCT Chairman Smitherman, and Commissioners Donna Nelson and Kenneth Anderson. Perry himself served as Agriculture Commissioner from 1991 to 1999. He was elected Lieutenant Governor in 1998, and became Governor upon the election of George W. Bush as President. Governor Perry, the longest serving chief executive in state history, has recently made national headlines for suggesting his state retains a constitutional right to secede from the Union, and for attempting to reject $555 million in unemployment insurance payments due his state under ARRA. Perry is on the front line of the possible emerging (biologically misnamed) swine flu pandemic. This morning the Governor declared a statewide declaration of disaster in order to call for more antiviral medicinal doses and associated assistance from federal agencies. has identified no other state sponsored broadband initiatives in Texas, following the expiration of the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund (TIF) in 2006. TIF, funded with a 1.5% surcharge on telephone bills, expended $1.5 billion on institutional broadband projects (libraries, schools, hospitals) during its 10 year tenure.

After TIF, the major Texas broadband initiative, Senate Bill 5 of 2005, was sponsored by AT&T (NYSE: T), the former Southwest Bell-SBC Communications of San Antonio. S.B. 5 moved all cable and video franchising to the PUCT, stripping municipalities of a power they had held since the days of community antenna system licenses. The promise of S.B. 5 was broadband delivered by AT&T, via its Lightspeed and Uverse fiber rich networks, and by new DSL roll-outs at all local exchanges operated by the carrier. The legislation was hated by municipalities, the cable industry, and public access advocates. Governor Perry, arguably the biggest backer of the initiative, other than AT&T itself, signed the bill into law in September 2005.

Ms. Handem, of RuMBA, pointed out how few states had conducted statewide broadband data collection and mapping prior to the passage of ARRA despite the importance of these basic efforts. "A portion of the stimulus package funds, allocated to broadband, includes mapping of broadband," said Director Handem. "This means that all states must follow a similar path as California, one of the few states that had the foresight to fund mapping of broadband, ahead of the passage of the Recovery Act, last February." We add the states of Massachusetts, Maine, North Carolina, Vermont, and West Virginia to California, as jurisdictions that conducted mapping with their own resources, and without adopting the Connected Nation model.

Commissioner Staples, who keeps an official blog with social networking links, has his work cut out for him. He enunciates an extensive agenda for rural economic development for his agency, and for Texas as a whole. His Department manages a set of issues from community development, through school breakfast programs, pesticide regulation, to foreign trade. He certainly is correct in recognizing broadband deployment for unserved rural areas as a key part of any rural development mission.

Our take: We congratulate Commissioner Staples for getting the process started.
To paraphrase the national wireless trade association based in Texas quoted above, 'This is a big job, thank goodness someone has started getting it done.'

We hope the Public Utility Commissioners of Texas are equally as proactive as Commissioner Staples, and that the PUCT opens a rulemaking to mandate that in-state carriers and cable operators provide public data for the accurate mapping of their broadband facilities by the firm retained via the eventual RFP process.

We hope the data collection and mapping process is truly an open and transparent process in Texas, as is needed by such a vast and important state of (and still in) our Union.
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