Interactive map of Internet access released

Disparities between demographic groups continue, however, with low-income communities and minorities among those lagging in broadband use.

Federal officials released their interactive online map of Internet access around the country Thursday, promising to provide new ammunition to all sides in the debate over national broadband deployment.

The map has been much anticipated and already hotly debated, with Republicans criticizing federal agencies for allocating stimulus money for broadband build-out without the map, and consumer advocacy groups insisting the map will back up their claims that Internet service providers are gaming the system.

Among the key findings laid out in the map and a companion report: Between 5 percent and 10 percent of Americans still lack access to basic broadband. But overall access to high-speed Internet continues to grow, with 68 percent of Americans within reach of broadband technology.

Disparities between demographic groups continue, however, with low-income communities and minorities among those lagging in broadband use. Nearly a third of all Americans reported not using the Internet in any location, according to the report.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration spent about $200 million over five years, collecting information and developing the map, said the agency's administrator, Larry Strickling. He said the map will help officials across the country increase access to high-speed Internet.

"The National Broadband 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,"%C2%A0Strickling%C2%A0told reporters. "We are pleased to see the increase in broadband adoption last year, particularly in light of the difficult economic environment, but a digital divide remains."

Consumers, businesses, and government officials can access the map online. Users can view such details as wireless speeds, the types of service available, and other key information, from the national level down to census blocks. The map will be updated twice a year.

But some consumer groups are already blasting the map for leaving out pricing information -- an omission that the advocacy organization Free Press said was beyond NTIA's control and "driven by politics."

"Unfortunately, the map also lacks the most important data for broadband market analysis -- the price of service," said Free Press research director Derek Turner. "This glaring omission is due solely to fierce opposition from the phone and cable industry, which threatened to hold the mapping effort hostage if NTIA required the collection of pricing data."

Despite the criticism, Free Press and other groups welcomed the map as a "long overdue picture of broadband availability" in the United States. Industry groups were also conditional in their praise, saying people should be careful in drawing too many conclusions from the data.

But AT&T Vice President of Public Policy Jeff Brueggeman said the bottom line is the project has produced the most detailed map of its kind.

"We shouldn't get lost in pointing out the map's flaws, or what we consider its flaws, and forgetting the positive direction the map takes us," he wrote in a company blog post.%C2%A0 "While we tend to focus on national broadband policies here within the beltway, the map will support ongoing broadband initiatives at the state and local level."

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski agreed, calling the map a significant milestone in the effort to reach President Obama's goal of providing 98 percent of Americans with access to high-speed Internet within five years.

"It 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," he said.