Mobile Accountability V: Pondering The Goals Of US Broadband Mapping

Christine Ekman

The National Telecommunications & Information Association (NTIA) cites the goal of the US Broadband Mapping Project as:

“to increase broadband Internet access and adoption in America, which supports economic growth, job creation, and improved education, health care, and public safety…creating and maintaining the first public, searchable nationwide map of broadband availability; broadband-usage research that can inform efforts to close the digital divide; and promoting digital literacy to help Americans compete in the 21st century economy.”

National Broadband MapAs a mobile analytics service, we like this. This is a good thing. We certainly like that the NTIA is including mobile broadband networks in their mapping project.

This is especially important as we look to an environment where more megabytes are to be transferred on smart devices over mobile networks than on large form devices over more traditional wire line internet.

With the project well under way, many states have searchable and filterable online broadband maps, we pause to note how effectively the objectives of the original goal are being met. Though not explicitly stated, it is clear that, in large part, the National Broadband Map is focused on how best to provide and educate the public about broadband service options. If the mobile adoption trends continue, mobile broadband over Smartphones and tablets will be the platform of choice.

With that in mind we question why individuals can find mobile network performance information about a specific address, but not about an area, or in a map-layer view.  After all the point of mobile is well, moving!  There to be a holdover from fixed wire line measurement. Consider the commonplace home Wi-Fi network that connects through a DSL or a cable modem.

Knowing the download speed the cable or phone company can offer you at the threshold of your house is important because that will be an indicator of how fast you can expect the various Wi-Fi devices on your network to transfer data. Since all the devices are connecting to the internet through this single point of service, knowing the throughput speed at this point made sense.

This single access point, way of thinking very much challenges the basic definition of ‘mobile technology’. People need to know how their mobile devices are going to function at home, at work, on the drive to work, at the in-laws house, etc. using many different access points, not just one. In order to select the best network it is necessary to see performance data over a continuous area not just a fixed point.

Currently the broadband map layers only show aggregated data about network performance and even the number of available providers. So in rural county X you can see that there is only one available network provider and an estimated download speed of 100 Kbps, but you can’t see which provider it is unless you type in a specific address and even then you can’t be sure if down the road a few miles on the way to work it is the same provider. This does not seem to be offering individuals a good way to make a good mobile broadband decision.

A second criticism is the oversimplification of the speed and coverage mapping layers for mobile broadband service. Currently, if we were to look at a map overlay of a city like Denver, we would only see an orange color layer indicating data throughput speeds of <10 mbps. Wow, 10+ mbps everywhere in the Denver metro area, on any carrier. The problem is that you can’t break this down at all to see what network types e.g.: LTE, 3G, CDMA, etc. or which carriers are providing specific speeds.

It’s nearly impossible that the public would regularly see these speeds on a 3G network. We understand that mobile carriers are somewhat private about publicizing data transfer speeds in specific areas, but it does not help anyone to make a carrier or device selection without being able to find what networks are offering these great speeds and in what areas of the city.

Secondly, I live in Denver, my company (Mobile Pulse) headquarters are in Denver, and we have tens of thousands of speed tests run on various networks and device from the Denver metro area—here’s a shocker, our clients very rarely see speeds over 10 mbps, certainly not on an averaged basis. Are these speeds that users are experiencing or are they the “optimal speeds” the network can offer?

These observations of the US Broadband Mapping Project suggest the need to look at the performance of mobile networks with new tools and analysis techniques. The goal is at least in part to provide individuals the coverage and performance of specific mobile network providers and view it on a map layer as opposed to a fixed point.

Also, there is clearly some need to validate the performance claims being made by carrier data. Mobile Pulse, Root Wireless, NetMotion  and Oogla have worked with several states to capture more accurate mobile network performance data. This data offers an in depth view of throughput speeds in an area as found on specific devices and networks. It seems appropriate in the wake the of current broadband map shortcomings, that this new and more accurate data be available and viewable to the public. It would certainly provide a more suitable data set for determining the best mobile network provider for an individual.

  • Do you think that crowd sourcing mobile performance data is the way to get the most accurate mapping analysis?
  • Are your employees satisfied with mobile performance and coverage?
  • Are you using the latest 4G/LTE device and still seeing gaps in mobile service?

This article was a joint effort of Christine Ekman and Chris Affrunti. We look forward to your comments, tweets, shares, likes and insights.


About Christine Ekman

Christine is a co-founder with Andrew MacFarlane at Mobile Pulse. Her years in telecommunications have spanned Ethernet, Frame Relay, Fiber LANs, xDSL and Cable data services. Mobile broadband is next generation of broadband service offerings. She has been advising startups and venture investors for over 12 years at Evolve Adapt Survive. Her clients have included SMARTS (now EMC), NGT (Comcast), Broadsoft, Grotech among many others. Previous to Evolve, Christine worked in mergers and acquisitions for Bay Networks (Nortel) and previous to that she worked as a broadband network design engineer at US WEST.