Detailed, accessible infrastructure maps can aid smarter broadband deployments

Samantha Bookman, FierceTelecomI started writing full-time about wireline telecom around the same time that the federal government's broadband stimulus plan was announced, in early 2009. One of the first pieces of data I went searching for at the USDA and other government websites was maps of currently operating broadband networks. Of course, the government didn't have any such maps. It had embarked on a multibillion-dollar project with very little concrete knowledge of the extent of broadband coverage in the United States. Ever since, it's been playing catchup--in fact, some of the NTIA's first BTOP (Broadband Technology Opportunities Program) broadband stimulus awards in 2009 funded regional mapping projects.

The federal government released its maps, through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), of accessible broadband networks at the end of 2010 and, most recently, in February 2012. With the participation of broadband providers and data from state and local governments, we have a much clearer picture of who has access to acceptable broadband speeds and who does not.

Still, the issue of mapping broadband networks at the same time that new networks are being built brings to mind an event from several years ago. In 2004, I watched from my office window as street crews laid down paving bricks in place of tarmac on Causeway Street in front of Boston's Fleet Center (now TD Garden) ahead of the Democratic National Convention. They did a beautiful job in a few short days--and then almost immediately afterward a different crew appeared, tore up the freshly laid bricks, and relaid water pipes under the street. The paving bricks were redone, only to be torn up one more time by another infrastructure crew.

Without delving too deeply into the machinations of Boston's public works department, the thrice-repaving of this short section of the street due to the need to replace underlying infrastructure could be seen as a warning for the way broadband networks are being built out. Knowing what's already in place--and what isn't in place--in the broadband arena can make a big difference in cost and time involved.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the estimated $3 trillion worth of fiber loops installed in the 1990s and early 2000's that now sit mostly unused--a stat that isn't part of the government's mapping data. So learning about a new mapping service, FiberLocator, was intriguing.  

FiberLocator is an online service provided by NEF, a fiber infrastructure consulting firm, that pulls together the network maps of various participating infrastructure providers into a single interactive map. While its business purpose is to help providers and procurers locate existing fiber networks and plan out their builds or attachments, the vendor-neutral aspect of FiberLocator helps create a more accurate picture of available networks and reduce confusing overlap from different maps.

Mike Spieldenner, vice president at NEF and a self-described "fiber geek," says the more providers who use and contribute to the subscription-based service, the better.

"The product itself is more powerful and more potent the more users it has," he said in an interview with FierceTelecom. "Because we can then invest the money into creating new capabilities for it, adding other pieces of information like all the cell sites, all the potential Fortune 500 companies in the radius of the fiber--all these kinds of things can be added."

The FiberLocator service started as an internal tool to help NEF on its consulting side, where it helps clients ranging from CLECs to medium or large enterprises searching for infrastructure or trying to solve a connectivity issue between, for example, multiple sites. NEF launched the tool a year ago as a subscription-based service open to any company needing to locate fiber networks.

Spieldenner sees FiberLocator as a new way to approach network maps, compared to the proprietary network mapping or tracking systems that providers maintain within their respective corporate structures.

"Everybody is running (their own) independent tools. From a strategic standpoint they really have a lot of the same information, but they internalize it. It's not standardized, it doesn't get updated, but that's the way it is, it's the way telecom tools have been historically. So this is a great change for the marketplace."

With the NTIA's national broadband map in place and hopefully updated every year, consumers and businesses will have a better idea of how the broadband buildout is progressing. But the launch of the commercial FiberLocator tool points to a need for more detailed, easily accessible network infrastructure maps to ensure that the U.S. doesn't just strive to get as many people connected as it possibly can; it should also make sure it does so in an economically viable way with as little waste and network overlap as possible.--Sam

Correction: The initial awards for broadband mapping were distributed through the NTIA's BTOP program, not the Rural Utilities Service.