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What's the ROI on Local Broadband?

Hard data enables Louisville, Ky., residents to know their broadband speeds and it's also proving beneficial to the city, which is looking to kick off new connectivity projects.

City leaders in Louisville, Ky., have long suspected inconsistencies in the local commercial broadband offerings. Now they have the numbers to prove it.

Last spring the city teamed with the IT developers at PowerUp Labs to produce the broadband speed-test site Since then, nearly 4,000 citizens have logged on to test their Internet speeds, at the same time generating a first-ever view of what the providers are delivering and where the city infrastructure may be lacking.

“There are large chunks of our community that are not on the Internet,” said Ed Blayney, innovation project manager for Louisville Metro Government.

The idea for the test site percolated up at a code-a-thon hosted by the Civic Data Alliance. Results of ongoing speed tests show a number of stark contrasts. Seventeen percent of tests showed broadband speeds limping along at less than 5 Mbps, with geography playing a big role. In the slowest ZIP codes, testers clocked in at an average 7.32 Mbps versus more than 183 Mbps in the fastest neighborhoods. (The FCC defines broadband Internet as being 25 Mbps or faster — a number it updated in 2015 from the previous 4 Mbps standard.)

The website tests Internet connection speeds by directly downloading and uploading sample files from the user’s browser, so that it reflects the actual browsing experience. Tests show a big gap in service levels among the two main local providers that together cover nearly the entire Louisville market. AT&T serves about a quarter of home users at an average 11.25 Mbps, while Time Warner covers almost all other homes at 51.05 Mbps.

“I didn’t realize how significant the difference was in the download speeds between the two huge competitors in our community. There is one provider that consistently delivers much higher speeds,” Blayney said.

Consumers can decide for themselves what to do with that information. Other findings, though, could have a direct impact on government IT planning. “The city believed there was a digital divide on the west end of town, and the participation map helped them validate that assumption,” said Jon Matar, CEO of PowerUp Labs and co-founder of Speed Up Your City, a spin-off of the lab devoted to bringing speed tests to other municipalities.

The broadband gap is apparent in the volume of testing. In areas with good Internet access, neighborhoods have logged anywhere from 100 to 300 tests. On the west side, no neighborhood logged more than 100 tests, and most showed far less participation. “The number of responses from the rest of the city were so much greater than what they saw from the west end, that helped them to confirm the suspicions,” Matar said.

That confirmation could have practical implications as the city charts its evolving broadband infrastructure.

“We are a data-driven government, we want to use data to make decisions, but it is hard when you don’t have that data. Up until now, we haven’t had any good data on this issue,” said Blayney. “We may have known the narrative in the past, but now we have the figures to back it up.”

City IT leaders are using those figures to inform their proposed digital inclusion plan, which calls for more public Internet access. “We are trying to get all our public buildings to have public Wi-Fi. We have a proposal to have a new fiber build down into that section of the community, to develop the infrastructure there,” Blayney said.

PowerUp Labs is working with a number of local governments to replicate the Louisville effort, including San Jose, Calif., and Montgomery County, Md., where local leaders are trying to get a handle on not just the speed of the Internet, but also on the types of usage. “People are getting unlimited data for mobile, and they are using that as their primary source for Internet access in parts of town where there is no good broadband option,” Matar said. “They want to know whether people are using broadband mobile from their homes and what the implications of that might be.”

In addition to driving government planning efforts, transparency in broadband could be a boon to consumers, if it helps to spur competition in the marketplace.

“Our vision for this is to have an accessibility map where a citizen can put in their address and see the different providers they can sign up with, and then add the data that shows how much people pay for those services and the average speeds they are getting,” Matar said.

In cities where mega-providers dominate the market, this kind of information could help open up a space for smaller companies to make a play. “These small new providers don’t have the marketing budget to compete with somebody like Comcast,” said Matar. Data transparency around the subject might be a way to level the playing field.

For cities already looking to upgrade their broadband services, speed tests can deliver an important benchmark. “If you are going to invest in improving the infrastructure, you ought to know what speeds you are getting in the first place, and yet for many cities, they cannot find this type of information,” Matar said. Speed tests offer a baseline to gauge the return on investment.

Broadband speed data also can be a driver of economic development. Matar pointed to Dallas, a city looking to attract millennials to its workforce. “If they don’t have quality Internet, a younger demographic won’t want to go to that area,” he said. If speed tests show potential trouble spots, “they will probably want to start putting together a strategy on how to improve those things.”

Other partners on SpeedUpLouisville include the Civic Data Alliance, LVL1 and the Smart Louisville Collaborative.

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.