The federal government's top communications officials have devoted much of their attention over the last couple years to tackling what is often called the digital divide, evangelizing about the benefits of broadband technology and channeling resources to promote deployment and adoption of high-speed Internet service.
But hard data about the extent of the problem has been elusive, with studies offering incomplete and sometimes conflicting snapshots on the broadband situation in the United States.
Today the feds are weighing in, releasing the first official nationwide map of broadband availability, a joint effort of the Department of Commerce and the Federal Communications Commission more than two years in the making.
Congress authorized the map with the 2008 Broadband Data Improvement Act, and then funded its creation through the 2009 economic stimulus bill. In the time since, the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has allocated nearly $300 million in grants to all 50 states, five territories and the District of Columbia to gather granular data about the speeds and availability of service across the country.
The result is an interactive map that offers the most comprehensive outline yet of broadband availability broken down by census block, providing numerous ways to sort and analyze the findings and inviting developers to build applications on top of the data.
"It's more than just a map ... it's a huge database of information that's going to be available to anyone to make use of," NTIA administrator Lawrence Strickling, the Commerce Department's assistant secretary for communications and information, told reporters on a conference call. "We think it's an unprecedented event in government data sets."
The map, comprised of more than 25 million searchable records representing more than 1,600 providers around the country, indicates that between 5 percent and 10 percent of Americans lack access to broadband service with a minimum download speed of 4 Mbps and upload speed of 1 Mbps.
Along with the publication of the map, NTIA released the results of a nationwide survey of broadband adoption. The survey found that 68 percent of U.S. households subscribe to broadband service, a significant increase from last year's mark of 63.5 percent, though administration officials caution that segments of the population such as rural and African Americans continue to lag well behind.
"When you dig a little deeper into the data it's clear that we still have work to do," Rebecca Blank, acting commerce deputy secretary, told reporters.
Officials are hoping that as the map evolves, it will provide the data to better target areas that are unserved or underserved. NTIA said it plans to update the map twice a year with new data gathered by the states.
The map enables users to search for coverage by street address, returning results ranked by order of area providers' advertised speed. It also provides visualizations of nationwide coverage areas, which can be organized by the connection technology, offering comparative views of, for instance, the portion of the country that has access to basic cable modem broadband service and the extent of cable providers' build-out of DOCSIS 3.0 service.
The release of the map is accompanied by more than 30 RESTful APIs that developers can use to build applications incorporating the broadband availability data.