An Opportunity to Establish a Broadband Usage Baseline?

State and local government officials tasked with increasing broadband access for their citizens, experts brought in to discuss benchmarks for the National Broadband Plan and members of the National Broadband Team responsible for delivery of that Plan in Spring 2010 collectively wring their hands over the sparseness of data on broadband use and access by residence. At the FCC's September 1st broadband workshop "State and Local Governments: Toolkits and Best Practices" the map of North Carolina presented by Jane Patterson, Executive Director, e-NC Authority, showed lots of gray counties. When asked, she explained that the lack of data resulted from Internet providers unwilling to disclose for competitive reasons.

In the 1930 to 1950 US Censuses, enumerators asked by household who had a radio set. In 1930 and 1940 every household answered the question. In 1950 a 20% sample of households was asked.

Census details about individuals are confidential for 72 years following collection. Microfilmed completed forms of the 1930 census were released to the public in 2002. The 1930 census form had categories of data and numbered columns. Radio Set was asked in the Home Data category. Radio Set responses were recorded in column 9 of the form.

1930 US Census Radio Set example

Would it be useful to include a question about broadband use (or access) in the upcoming 2010 census? A good question, easily answerable (the 2000 census was conducted by mail not by trained enumerators), could provide a national baseline in one fell swoop. It might also raise the profile of the national broadband effort.

Is this approach practical? The census is conducted on April 1 - that is, after the National Broadband Plan's release. Is it logistically possible to update the contents of the census at this point? Only the U.S. Census Bureau can say. Getting that good easily answerable question and providing clear instructions on answering it would take some work. On the one hand this should be seen as a singular opportunity since the next census is in 2020. On the other hand it could be perfect timing that the National Broadband Plan coincides with the United States Census 2010.


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