Closing the broadband gap: How state governments and the private sector are working together to meet the challenge
The government, broadband service providers, and non-governmental organizations have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to close the nation’s broadband gaps by tapping into more than $100 billion in federal funds tied to Covid relief, the American Rescue Plan Act, and the recent Infrastructure Investment Act. National, regional, and local success will depend on collaboration to successfully plan and implement the joint investment of public and private funds. Doing so efficiently, while focusing on measurable outcomes for the American people and shareholders, is possible at a relatively small cost.
LightBox recently assembled practitioner experts from government and industry for a webinar, “Closing the Broadband Gap: How to Use Data and Mapping Tools to Implement Successful Broadband Programs,” to discuss the challenge. Led by Bill Price, LightBox vice president of government solutions, the panelists, each representing a different sector, covered a wide range of topics. Below are some of their key points:
Tom Reid, Reid Consulting Group
- It’s a myth is that rural subscribers don’t want broadband. Surveys show one-third of rural members will take the highest speed available to them, so if the speeds were made available, at least some people would take advantage of it.
- People in rural areas can’t just move. Farmers need to be on their land because people in the U.S. and around the world depend on their crops. Governments must plan and spend wisely to fix the infrastructure and bring broadband to farmers in states such as Ohio, which was presented as a case study.
Brian Darr, Ookla
- The Broadband Data Act approved crowdsourced data that is reliable and is based on proven methodologies for determining network coverage and network performance. Regulators and state authorities want to make sure money are spent wisely, so good speed testing is crucial, as is being able to validate by ISP and measure progress over time.
- Understanding where a test took place on a fixed network is a big part of the secret. Tests on browsers are basically reverse ISP look-ups. Mobile devices are different—we can see a network and its speed. Fixed GPS provides better info and shows that in some zip codes it’s not a consistent story.
- Funding decisions by census blocks means many households remain unserved, and as we look across different neighborhoods, the quality of network performance differs by neighborhood and demographics. There is an economic issue in some instances, in others, it’s related to how old the neighborhood is.
- Low-income families depend primarily upon wireless for their Internet connectivity. Transient populations lack the location consistency required for a fixed connection. Carriers must provide the right Wi-Fi hot spot equipment for the best coverage experience.
Eric McRae, University of Georgia Carl Vinson Institute of Government
- Georgia started thinking about how it was mapping broadband three to four years ago. The state’s broadband initiatives are predicated on legislation (SB 402), which prescribes a mandate to develop a state framework for grants; a technology baseline of 25/3 service; and the creation of a statewide broadband map that will surpass what’s available from the FCC. There are three broadband challenges: access, affordability, and adoption.
- The state did not have good location data statewide. LightBox provided its address fabric to help us build a map, and providers gave us their data. By law we must protect their information—it is not made widely available.
- States must decide what they need most and build off that. In Georgia, it was 25/3, but it could differ in other states. You can always add to what you’ve already built, but if you overwhelm your partners at the beginning you may not achieve your goals.
Jeffrey Zern, Windstream
- There are three ways to address the digital divide: 1) Fiber to the home is the fastest, most reliable, most future proof connection available; 2) Fixed wireless eliminates the need for last-mile cable, which makes it an inexpensive option for rural areas in some circumstances; it requires line of sight and is heavily influenced by topography; 3) DSL uses existing copper last-mile network, which is an end-of-life technology with no major technological advances remaining; it’s useful in certain circumstances but will be mostly obsolete within the decade.
- We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand broadband and close the digital divide—funding will not likely be available again at this scale, so the money must be spent in the right way in the right areas.
- Household density is the most significant driver of deployment economics. There is a major difference in this metric between dense areas and rural areas.
- Reliable data is essential for broadband planning—all stakeholders need good mapping software and the ability to understand a project’s financial returns.
LightBox plans to remain at the forefront of the US effort to close the broadband gap. Stay tuned in the coming months for more updates about how governments and the private sector are using our data to solve a problem that affects millions.