While stakeholders agree that inaccurate federal broadband data is a big motivating factor for starting a state broadband survey, other considerations can impact one's approach to surveying.
When federal and state entities spend money on broadband infrastructure, they want a good return on investment, and they want to know they’re helping people in need. As such, accurate data on Internet access and quality is crucial for decision-making.
It’s well known that the Federal Communications Commission’s Form 477 data, which helps direct billions of dollars, overestimates high-speed Internet access. But this data can be challenged if a state can show with another set of data that a local area lacks sufficient broadband service.
That’s one reason a state might collect its own broadband data through a survey, but there can be other reasons as well. Three states that have recently kickstarted their own broadband surveys — Washington, North Carolina and Alabama — spoke to Government Technology about their strategic visions.
Russ Elliott, director of the Washington State Broadband Office, constantly hears people say, “Our broadband stinks.” While Elliott, a former broadband provider, can sympathize with the sentiment, he knows he needs more specific information to initiate a strategy. That’s where survey data comes in.
“I can’t quantify ‘stinks,’” Elliot stated. “What I’m trying to do is quantify what ‘stinks’ means.”
And he has to do it with a survey that drills down deeper than current federal data, which analyzes broadband service from too broad of a view. At the federal level, if one household has broadband service within a Census block, the entire Census block is defined as served, even if that block encompasses miles of unserved space.
The Washington broadband survey, which launched last week, had been completed by only 9,000 respondents at the time that Elliott spoke to Government Technology, but because the state can link those responses to addresses, it's already seeing things the feds can’t.
“I contend that we are in microsurgery, not macrosurgery,” Elliott explained. “What it’s doing for us immediately is it’s starting to shine a light on the existing maps out there that are being leveraged for major funding decisions, showing that those maps are not telling a proper story of what current availability is.”
This step is important for the state, as it wants more federal money in order to accomplish its aggressive legislative mandate of ensuring that every Washington home has download and upload speeds of 150 Mbps by 2028. The state has estimated that it would take more than $3 billion to get fiber infrastructure to every home that doesn’t have broadband service.
Based on his experience, Elliott believes the broadband survey can allow Washington to challenge the FCC if it declares an area served when it really isn’t. When Elliot was broadband manager in Wyoming, he saw what granular data can do: Wyoming was able to successfully challenge the FCC’s data and help a carrier win USDA money to bring high-speed Internet service to Sweetwater County.
Elliott said another purpose behind the survey is to help identify homes where people can’t afford high-speed Internet despite being in an area with good broadband infrastructure.
Washington is also proud of its survey tool, which was developed by the Minnesota-based GEO Partners LLC. The tool, Elliott said, has a unique component that can generate technical feasibility information within minutes.
This feature is a godsend given that broadband feasibility studies can, in addition to costing tens of thousands of dollars, take months to finish. And the windows for winning federal broadband funds are short.
“The windows are open for 45 to 60 days,” Elliott pointed out. “It’s really hard to turn around a study if you don’t have one on the shelf.”
More than anything, Washington wants the broadband discussion to be a “community up” rather than “provider down” conversation. Communities that are willing to take surveys and quantify their issues have more power, Elliott said.
The broadband mapping effort in North Carolina is still going strong. In contrast to Washington, which is primarily interested in learning about gaps in broadband service, North Carolina wants to know about household connectivity levels, whether they’re high or low, throughout its territory.
Jeff Sural, director of broadband infrastructure, said that with its survey North Carolina wants to gather as much context as possible, whether it’s related to Internet service providers, the tech that’s facilitating the service, upload and download speeds, latency or other information. These facts tie back to mapping, which ties back to funding.
Additionally, North Carolina plans to use the survey data as a type of audit.
“We have a grant program,” Sural said. “We give money to broadband providers to provide better service. We want to make sure they’re doing that. It’s an audit process, if you will. We want to verify if those grant recipients are delivering the product or service they promised when we gave them the grant funding.”
In addition to guiding its own broadband funds, North Carolina also sees its survey information as a way to verify or challenge federal data.
For states that are interested in doing broadband surveys, Sural recommends thinking carefully about survey questions and providing as much clarification as possible. Even a simple question like “How much are you paying for Internet?” can be confusing because it overlooks the possibility of bundled service. Sural also commented on the importance of offering the survey in multiple languages and including a phone option if the goal is to serve different populations.
As a final point, Sural pointed out that states shouldn’t commit to a particular kind of speed test without further analysis. North Carolina examined multiple kinds of speed tests and ended up developing its own speed test for more robust results.
Kenneth Boswell, director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, wrote in an email that federal broadband speed data is not granular enough to meet Alabama’s needs. The importance of accurate data has become especially critical in light of COVID-19.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has made our survey efforts even more important in the short term, because our school children need broadband for distance learning, many of our residents need broadband to be able to telework, and telehealth visits can be a lifeline for people who cannot see their doctors in person,” Boswell said.
“Gov. Ivey recently committed $100 million for the Alabama Broadband Connectivity for Students program, to ensure that all low-income students have access to the Internet for the start of school in the fall,” Boswell added. “Our survey results will help us develop longer-term strategies for ensuring that not just those students, but all residents have broadband access.”
Alabama’s survey will run indefinitely and provide baseline numbers for the state’s different broadband efforts, including the Broadband Alabama program and Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund.
Boswell advised other states to diligently promote broadband surveys well after they are launched.
“As with many survey efforts, interest in a broadband speed survey is often highest when the survey is first announced, then tapers off over time,” Boswell said. “We’re using a variety of approaches to publicize the survey and encourage residents to submit their results. So far, we’ve been pleased with our survey’s response rate.”
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