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U.S. delves into broadband access with new map

Government agency releases National Broadband Map, a visual depiction of the state of broadband availability and service across the country that will be updated every six months.

If you ever wanted to dig into data about broadband availability around the U.S., now's your chance.

The Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has launched the National Broadband Map in time for today's deadline set by Congress. According to the NTIA, the broadband map is designed to be a public tool offering data that could eventually be used to help expand broadband access in areas around the country that need it most.

A map of the state of U.S. broadband access has been a long time coming. Back in 2008, the plan was brought to the table in the Broadband Data Improvement Act, but the program wasn't able to get funding. After President Obama signed the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act in 2009, stimulus funds were secured to finally deliver the map.

The broadband map didn't come cheap. The NTIA initially budgeted $350 million to get the program up and running, prompting some who criticized the stimulus package to ask if it was money well spent. However, the program ended up coming in well under budget. The map's actual cost is $200 million over five years, including development, grants doled out to compile broadband data, and maintenance, an NTIA spokeswoman told CNET today in a phone conversation.

The National Broadband Map allows users to search for more than 25 million records that deliver information on where broadband is available, what kind of technologies are being used, and the top advertised speeds in a given area. The map also lets users see which providers are offering service in certain locations. The tool itself displays information on an integrated map that can be manipulated to compare different locations and drill down into specific towns to see how they compare to other municipalities around the country.

A view of broadband access in the contiguous 48 states, according to the National Broadband Map.
A view of broadband access in the contiguous 48 states, according to the National Broadband Map. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

The National Broadband Map "will provide consumers, companies, and policymakers with a wealth of information about broadband availability, speeds, competition, and technology, and help Americans make better informed choices about their broadband services," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement.

But the broadband map also delivers some sobering facts. As NTIA Administrator Lawrence E. Strickling pointed out in a statement today, the map "shows there are still too many people and community institutions lacking the level of broadband service needed to fully participate in the Internet economy."

More specifically, the map shows that 5 percent to 10 percent of Americans lack adequate access to broadband speeds of 4Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream. The FCC believes those speeds are the minimum requirement needed to effectively browse the Web and download photos and video.

Moreover, the map shows that "anchor institutions," such as schools, lack adequate bandwidth. The NTIA said schools should have 50Mbps to 100Mbps connections available to every 1,000 students at an institution. Today, approximately 66 percent of schools have less than 25Mbps connections. Just 4 percent of libraries have speeds over 25Mbps.

The National Broadband Map will be updated every six months with new data. Users can also examine the map and provide feedback to data points that might be incorrect.

In addition to its map launch, the NTIA also shared results from a survey of Internet usage in 54,000 households across the U.S.

The organization found that just 68 percent of American households have broadband access. However, that figure is up from 63.5 percent over the prior year. In addition, "people with low incomes, disabilities, seniors, minorities, the less-educated, non-family households, and the non-employed tend to lag behind other groups in home broadband use," the NTIA reported.

The organization said 46 percent of respondents who don't have Internet access in the home say it's unnecessary, while 25 percent say it's "too expensive." Approximately 28 percent of Americans choose to not access the Internet in any location--at home or otherwise.