•  May 5, 2020

    The Pandemic-Induced Broadband Pivot of 2020

    This article was originally published by Applied Geographics Inc. (AppGeo), a company acquired by The Sanborn Map Company Inc in September 2022.

    Bill Johnson, Carpe Geo Evangelist, AppGeo

    The coronavirus pandemic has pushed broadband to the front and center of our national consciousness in a way that nothing else before has been able to do. Actually, that’s not totally true. Broadband is mostly invisible to us, what is front and center is the online world and how the pandemic has caused an incredible shift in our daily lives to the online world. I think in a few years we will look back on this pandemic as the turning point, the pivot, when as a nation we finally recognized the urgent need to close the digital divide. The impacts will be far-reaching and offer new carpe geo moments. There is a powerful synergy between improved broadband, the further normalization of online communities and work, and the expansion of technology to improve life and work. In short, I see broadband as the fuel for a virtuous circle that feeds upon itself to do good things.

    Big changes are happening now

    As I write this, huge numbers of Americans have spent more than six weeks working from home; many (most, I presume) for the first time ever. Public schools, colleges, and universities have closed and shifted to online distance learning. In addition to these first-order impacts, there are many other facets of our lives that have shifted to the online world as a replacement for face-to-face commerce and interaction. Brick and mortar retail has largely been replaced with online shopping. Zoom is everywhere. Organizations of every type — churches, non-profits, historical societies, neighborhood associations, clubs, musicians and artists, and many others — have started to use online meetings as a replacement for face-to-face meetings and in-person events. Staying home has also meant that entertainment outside of the home has been replaced mainly with online content. The pandemic will also accelerate telemedicine as an alternative to visiting your doctor at their office. Ironically, any health concerns we previously held about limiting screen time have been largely cast aside. Yesterday the screen was considered a hazard for the healthy development of our children, today it has become our lifeline.

    The pandemic will subside, but many of the recent shifts to the online world will be normalized. Many businesses are seeing firsthand that they can operate efficiently with a partly or largely remote workforce. Some of them may conclude that operating an office environment is an unnecessary expense or may choose to downsize their office environments. Other businesses have added online services — online ordering and delivery, online training — and those may continue or expand. Online learning will very likely expand at all levels in our education system. Education, entertainment, and shopping will have shifted further to online platforms and interactions. Our new normal will surely include a much larger role for remote access to a fully-connected world.

    Understanding the Digital Divide

    This dramatic pivot to online everything has clearly shown that the weakest link is home access to broadband. The divide is very stark and with this recent surge, the difference between those with adequate broadband service and those without is even greater. The digital divide now looks more like a digital canyon. Those without home broadband cannot participate in online education and work, nor communicate or participate in online communities. The New York Times published an article this week describing many of these issues in Why Rural America’s Digital Divide Persists.

    Equally significant, a lot of homes that do have broadband have discovered that what they have is inadequate. My own family is in this category, or at least we were until a few weeks ago when we made a major upgrade to our home broadband service. I expect that many other households are also realizing that they need higher speed service and will upgrade if they can. Too many cannot, especially those living on the margins of broadband availability where there may be only a single company offering service, and higher speeds may not be an option.

    There is even a debate on the minimum definition of broadband. The definition has been revised several times by the FCC, most recently (in 2015) to 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 mbps upload speed (test your speed). This year one of the FCC Commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel, expressed her belief that the definition should be raised to 100 mbps, but hers is a minority view on the Commission. This debate over the definition of broadband may seem overly academic, but the definition determines where the boundary lines are drawn on the map that separates the served from the unserved, so it is a highly relevant factor.

    One of the untold surprises is that the existing broadband networks have actually held up remarkably well against the pandemic surge in online traffic, especially with bandwidth-gobbling video transmission. You can bet that our asphalt highway system would be choked with intolerable congestion if it experienced a similar surge in traffic volume.

    That story of network resiliency is clearly a success, but we don’t have to look far to see that our networks fail to reach many American households, mainly (but not entirely) in rural areas. For too long we have failed to make the Internet a universally-available service. We’ve faced a challenge like this at least twice in the past century, with both electricity and telephone service. We can rise to the challenge once again for broadband.

    Photo Courtesy: USDA File Archives – 1936 Rural Electrification Act

    Deja vu all over again

    Some of you will recall that the initial national broadband mapping program had its roots in the economic recession of 2008. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that followed included the funding for broadband mapping. Now, twelve years later, during another economic downturn, our attention is again focused on broadband, and once more, mapping is a key part of the discussions. This time, we know a lot more about the overall broadband picture across the country, thanks to the work many of us did under the ARRA-funded program from 2009-2014. That effort created the first-ever comprehensive national broadband map, a huge step forward. Prior to that, we had no national map to understand the scope and scale of the problem.

    Now we are moving to a new phase with substantially better mapping to address the problem. On March 23, Congress passed the Broadband DATA Act to implement more granular and more accurate broadband mapping, which forms the basis for policy-making and funding for national broadband expansion programs. The FCC has 180 days to begin implementing the new law.

    Substantial increases in funding will be needed, targeted at expanding broadband networks to the unserved and underserved. There is plenty of speculation that Congress will take further steps to get our economy moving again, perhaps with a large infrastructure investment directed to the “usual suspects” like our deteriorating roads and bridges, but also to extending our broadband networks out to the remaining unserved households. I expect we will now be treating this as a national priority.

    There are existing, under-funded federal programs in place to effect the buildout; primarily the FCC Universal Service Program, but also the USDA Rural Utilities Service, and a number of states also have dedicated programs to fund broadband expansion. What all of these programs have in common is that there has not been adequate mapping to clearly delineate the problem and ensure that the funds are targeted precisely to needed areas. That will change with the implementation of better mapping as a result of the Broadband DATA Act, but there will be actions for state GIS programs to take.

    A new broadband map

    Under the Broadband DATA Act, the new mapping will be accomplished by overlaying polygons of broadband service availability submitted by the broadband companies to the FCC, with data points representing broadband serviceable locations. The Broadband DATA Act defines and specifies use of this latter dataset, referred to as the Broadband Fabric, or simply the Fabric, which was developed and is currently available from a single source, CostQuest Associates. The Broadband DATA Act specifies that a competitive procurement will be used, but it is understood by those in the know that the CostQuest dataset will be used, since there does not appear to be another data source that can immediately meet the requirements of the Act. CostQuest created the Broadband Fabric using a mix of data sources including commercially licensed data. The CostQuest Broadband Fabric has licensing limitations on its use and distribution, though we will not know until the FCC completes their procurement just exactly what limitations there will be or if other interested parties outside of the FCC will be able to access or use this data.

    The new, more granular broadband map will be a major improvement over the current FCC broadband maps. However, the new map will be the product of two main inputs: self-reported broadband service polygons from the broadband companies, and licensed Broadband Fabric points. Neither of these datasets will have been independently validated, and either or both may contain errors that impact the delineation of served versus unserved households.

    The FCC will have a challenge process to allow interested parties to challenge the accuracy of the new map, and this is where I believe states can play an important role. It will be possible to challenge the accuracy of the map as well as the underlying data; the polygons submitted by the broadband companies, and the point locations of the Broadband Fabric. States are well positioned to support the challenge process, and will have a strong incentive to do so. The incentive is that accuracy in the mapping is what will drive the funding for the broadband expansion programs. States will want to ensure that all of their unserved locations are correctly identified with the new mapping.

    What your state can do to help close the Digital Divide

    If you are in a state GIS office, now is the time to begin preparing for this new broadband priority. Keep in mind, federal broadband support means federal money flowing into your state to close the divide. Anything you can do to help maximize that flow will be a win for you and your state. Funding will be based on the new broadband map, plus any corrections you can offer through the FCC challenge process. That means you should be preparing to support the challenge process on the accuracy of the new FCC broadband map.

    One of the key GIS datasets needed for the challenge process is an accurate, complete, and up-to-date address point database. If you have one built or underway to support Next-Generation 9-1-1, you’re well on your way, as that same dataset can be leveraged in many important ways, including broadband mapping. Your address points will be your primary counterpoint to the CostQuest Broadband Fabric data and will allow you to ensure that no “broadband serviceable locations” are missed in the analysis to identify those lacking broadband. You will also need your statewide parcel layer, assessment roll information about the parcels, and current aerial imagery. Building footprints and many other layers from your data stack will also be helpful, as it will be up to you to demonstrate to FCC’s satisfaction that their map missed some of your states’ unserved locations. Your workflows to engage local government partners in capturing new addresses and other updates needed for 9-1-1 will be especially useful for the FCC challenge process.

    There are also some other ways that your office can support state broadband objectives:

    • Producing spatial analyses to support particular state priorities for broadband, such as for targeted economic development activities or particular disadvantaged communities;
    • Publishing state broadmap maps, data, and analyses for public consumption and awareness; and,
    • Engaging your network of partners to participate in broadband data accuracy assessments.

    Underpinning all of this is your GIS community of stakeholders who have worked with you to create a culture of GIS sharing and now participate with you in your overall strategy. What I have described in this blog as a broadband pivot may be a new reason for you to consider a pivot in your strategic direction. If you haven’t been actively revising your strategic plan to account for the wealth of changes taking place, it is more urgent than ever for you to do so. The pandemic-induced broadband pivot of 2020 is a great opportunity to apply your statewide GIS program towards implementing a very important public policy, but only if you align your strategy to make it happen.

    I’ll have much more to say on this topic in upcoming blog posts, so stay tuned. The carpe geo opportunities go well beyond the broadband mapping elements I’ve described here and extend into the very rich realm of how we use geospatial technology to take maximum advantage of the new fully-connected world. But step one is to make that fully-connected world a reality.

    Feel free to reach out to me online. I work from home and I now have a much better broadband connection for us to communicate over. Let’s put it to good use exploring the best forward strategy for your situation.

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