The e-NC Authority made great strides toward closing the digital divide when it began one of the first efforts to map access to broadband Internet service statewide. Its most recent interactive map uses Geographic Information System (GIS) layers of roads, county lines and other data. But e-NC makes its maps based on the data shared by Internet service providers. Many of those private companies are willing to share that data only under conditions of confidentialitythey say they need to keep the data out of the hands of competitors. That leaves gaps in the maps.

Those same companies recently hired Connected Nation, a nationwide nonprofit with strong industry ties, to do a separate statewide mapping project in North Carolina. The map is expected to be available by April. For a sneak peek, check out the GIS map created by Connect Kentucky, where the organization began. (Connect’s maps include access to wireless services; e-NC’s include only wireline.) The source of the data remains the same, though the industry claims it is more comfortable providing that data to third-party Connected Nation than to the state authority e-NC.

But critics say Connected Nation’s involvement doesn’t solve the problem: State policymakers will use data that can’t be independently verified when spending taxpayer money to subsidize broadband networks, with no evidence the private companies accomplish what they promise to do.

Is there another way?

Yes, says the organization Windows on the World e-Community Development Corporation (WOW e-CDC), based in Roper, N.C. The group worked with Elizabeth City State University to produce a study of 21 northeastern counties, surveying residents and checking utility poles and switching stations instead of relying on the data provided by Internet service companies.

WOW Executive Director Bunny Sanders said the $30,000 study, funded with state money, showed 10 percent to 20 percent more households did not have broadband access than were reported by e-NC.

At the Indy‘s request, WOW provided this sample of the study (PDF, 3.5 MB), which includes Halifax and Nash counties.

Sanders says her group’s study demonstrates data from providers tends to be inaccurate, and she argues that if the state really wants a clear picture of where Internet access is available, it needs data that is independently verifiable.