Why We Must Measure the Results of the $7.2 Billion in ARRA Broadband Funding

By Charles Benton and Kate Williams Ph.D.

On December 17, Vice President Joe Biden began rolling out $2 billion in broadband stimulus grants. Grants to extend broadband's reach across the country will be announced over the next 75 days.

Why is broadband data and research so critical? ARRA-funded projects represent an unprecedented opportunity to fill the enormous knowledge gap we have with respect to what works and what does not work in broadband deployment and broadband adoption.

We must act now to capitalize fully on the billions of dollars the stimulus law is investing in broadband deployment and adoption. These investments represent the most significant direct public funding of broadband projects ever made by the U.S. government. The success or failure of these projects is likely to be a huge factor in whether or not the federal government and other levels of government attempt to supplement private sector investment or correct for market failures in the future. Those are incredibly high stakes that will impact our nation's ability to compete economically against global competitors, to improve educational outcomes, and to achieve the promise of high-quality, affordable healthcare. To evaluate these investments honestly, we need to act now to ensure we collect the right data, organize it and make it publicly available.

In the absence of meaningful data collection and analysis, the results of the government's $7.2 billion broadband investment will be subject to the vagaries of politics, uninformed media analysis, inevitable misunderstandings, and, dare we say, intentional misinterpretations.

The broadband projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will generate huge quantities of data about the success and failure of the projects and their individual components - data that has the potential to answer such questions as: What leads communities and individuals to adopt broadband? Does broadband make quantifiable differences in the lives of people who did not have it previously? How does broadband enhance education and health care, energy consumption, and public safety? Does broadband increase home-based job creation and economic development? Does it assist small businesses? How do these results vary based on geography, demographics and income?

The answers to these questions have the potential to direct private and public investment in broadband for a long time to come. But we will only have the means necessary to answer them if project data is collected appropriately and relevant research is undertaken. Specifically, the government agencies responsible for distributing broadband grants and loans must require detailed data collection on the part of recipients. This data must be included in a carefully-constructed database with a powerful search engine. And there must be transparent, public access for academic study and government analysis.

Why is broadband data and research so critical? It is undisputed that the United States has fallen behind our competitor nations, including Japan and China, on a variety of different metrics that evaluate our standing with respect to broadband deployment, access, and adoption. While the ARRA will help to close that gap, it will not come close to funding all the infrastructure and adoption programs the nation needs.

The programs do, however, represent an unprecedented opportunity to fill the enormous knowledge gap we have with respect to what works and what does not work in broadband deployment and broadband adoption. That knowledge gap can be filled if the government collects and makes available data about the funded projects for aggregation and study so that we can measure the soundness and outcomes of various business models, technology models, adoption models, and community engagement models.

This opportunity is all the more incredible because of the relatively short time period in which the $7.2 billion in funding will be spent (over the next three years). If we do this right, we will have actionable data in months and years, not decades.

Without an objective process for collecting appropriate data and enabling interested parties of all sorts to conduct meaningful analysis, the determination of "success" or "failure" of the broadband projects will be made by the political process through the lens of tired ideology fed by an inexpert press. The stakes are too high to be tripped up by the old arguments about whether government is good or bad. We need to truly understand what works and what does not work in broadband deployment—and we need to have data to reach those conclusions.

With the announcement of the first round of broadband grants and loans, now is the time to make sure we capture meaningful data from these publicly-funded projects. The time is now to develop the data capture tools and repository needed to turn that data into insight and action. The nation's broadband future depends on it.

Kate Williams is Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

Charles Benton is Chairman and CEO of the Benton Foundation

By Charles Benton.