At best, data from the Federal Communications Commission tells an incomplete story about broadband in the states. Here's what Wisconsin, North Carolina and West Virginia have done to paint a clearer picture.
Limited federal data on broadband coverage has presented a hurdle for states as they try to do their part in erasing the digital divide in local communities. If available data doesn’t provide a valid picture of who has and doesn’t have broadband, what can be done?
The simplest solution is to create better maps. There is no set path for reaching this goal, however. Despite the common observation that Form 477 data from the Federal Communications Commission doesn’t cut it, states have different approaches and different timelines when it comes to their cartographical solutions.
The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin has been doing broadband mapping in some form since at least 2013, the year that the state’s Broadband Expansion Grant Program came into being. At first, the mapping initiative was simply about supporting that program, said broadband mapping coordinator Colter Sikora. The mapping still serves this function today.
“It is important … that we can effectively map out those areas that are eligible for our grant program and the areas that in statute are set forth to receive priority in our grant program,” State Broadband Director Jaron McCallum said.
For Wisconsin, the “real push” to produce more accurate information than the Form 477 data began in late 2018, Sikora said. The state has diligently built relationships with Internet service providers to set up the next step of charting more granular broadband coverage patterns. The challenge now is coming up with data collection standards that won’t put too much of a burden on providers, who don’t want to jump through an excess of hoops.
“While we’re all trying to still figure out what the federal government wants to do as far as standards go, and while we’re trying to work with our ISP communities, it’s kind of a Wild West environment,” Sikora said.
“Our next steps are going to be more formal communications with the ISP community to say, ‘How can we do this better? What are your data concerns?’” Sikora added.
McCallum emphasized the importance of Wisconsin “keeping its ear to the ground” to keep up with what’s happening at the federal level. The state doesn’t want to duplicate what the FCC does but rather enhance what the federal agency has laid out. It’s all about striking a balance between observing the landscape and moving forward.
“[The challenge is] projecting FCC timelines and when things might happen,” McCallum said. “How can we, in the interim, improve? Is it worth improving in the interim? That’s definitely something that’s a bit of a constant discussion that we have in terms of broadband mapping.”
As far as mapping broadband adoption is concerned, McCallum said adoption is a focus for his team, though quantifying that concept is more difficult than quantifying broadband availability.
Affordability, which is often associated with broadband adoption rates, is another important piece of the puzzle, McCallum explained. Wisconsin has produced the Internet Discount Finder, which gives residents a way to tell whether they are near any broadband programs for low-income populations.
Sikora noted he has formed a strong relationship with the state’s geographic information system (GIS) community, which has helped him connect more with local governments and other state entities to share ideas.
Last month, North Carolina announced the release of its Broadband Indices, which allows users to view broadband availability and adoption in the state at the county and census tract level. The N.C. Department of Information Technology (NCDIT) said in a press release that these measures present a “more accurate” summation of the broadband landscape in North Carolina.
“They’re more accurate than others because they include a greater number of data points that we weigh and compare and contrast against one another,” Jeff Sural, director of the NCDIT Broadband Infrastructure Office, told Government Technology. “The FCC Form 477 data simply looked at a couple of data points that are collected and then aggregated at the census block level.”
Amy Huffman, digital inclusion and policy manager, said the state’s measures for broadband availability and adoption are compilations of multiple variables, which helps researchers avoid the pitfall of overemphasizing any single factor when describing a community’s broadband environment. These measures “allow us to be more precise in understanding what the needs are in various communities, what the strengths are, and what the opportunities are,” Huffman explained.
To illustrate this idea of greater precision, Sural shared an example involving rural communities in the state. Some of these communities were able to build out fiber networkds back in 2010 through funding from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. When the state examined these communities with its new maps, it found quantitative evidence that these areas didn’t have satisfactory adoptions rates despite their infrastructure. Such evidence tells the state the type of resources that these communities need.
“I knew our adoption rates were low compared to our access rates prior to this project, but seeing it the way it’s mapped out on our site is kind of — it’s striking,” Huffman said.
For a price of about $9,000, North Carolina’s measures were developed over the course of four to six weeks by Purdue University researcher Roberto Gallardo, who based this work on his Digital Divide Index.
“There have been initiatives by other states to collect data from the providers themselves and locate and identify every single household that doesn’t have broadband access,” Sural said. “But it’s expensive and time-consuming. We just didn’t have those resources. So we felt like we were fairly creative in our approach, and that’s how a lot of folks are going to have to address the issue of figuring out where the trouble spots are in their communities.”
Sural said these new measures are still a baseline of sorts. Because the measures are at the county and census tract levels due to data constraints, they don’t capture the ultimate level of granularity. The state’s broadband grant program, however, will allow the state to gradually collect more specific data from applicants.
Kelly Workman, administrative director for the West Virginia Development Office, said the state has been using broadband speed tests since 2014 in an attempt to validate FCC mapping. The speed testing ended up confirming what the state suspected: Areas defined as completely served by the FCC are, in actuality, not completely served.
“We do need to understand the reality of people where they live,” Workman said. “If my neighbor has service and I don’t, it does me little good to be marked as served on a census block.”
Since its foray into speed testing, West Virginia has continued to build upon its mapping effort. Workman said the team maps out the work of any state- or federally funded project. For example, the state has received broadband money from USDA’s ReConnect Program, which allows it to outline new broadband deployments on its maps.
In another case, the state won a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission in 2018. Thanks to that project, it was able to map fiber infrastructure in 10 of its 55 counties. West Virginia then compared that data to what it had mapped out over the previous few years to see differences in build-out.
“There has been quite a bit of activity in the past five years,” Workman said. “But if there’s not a state agency that is actively capturing that data and mapping it, it just becomes lost. So many things can change over the course of five to 10 years. That’s why we feel that it’s important to maintain a state-level mapping and data collection program.”
West Virginia is also one of eight states that were selected for the National Telecommunications Information Administration’s national broadband availability map project. The state’s involvement here further illustrates its commitment to better mapping.
“West Virginia has always advocated for the evaluation of infrastructure at a sub-census block level,” Workman said. “The evaluation of infrastructure of any type at the census block level is problematic because it does not reflect actual service at the address level. It masks some very real issues. It restricts eligibility for various federal programs. It benefits a select constituency. And the longer it goes on, the worse the data becomes.”
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