Big Changes in Broadband
Johnson: “It’s very clear there are some very big changes happening right now. First of all, we’re seeing a massive shift to the work from home situation and because of that a lot of companies and government agencies alike are seeing that remote work actually is quite practical for lots of jobs. They are, in many cases, reassessing their office requirements going forward. We’re seeing schools across the country going either entirely online this fall, or using a blend of online and in classroom with a lot of social distancing in place… In addition to employment and education, which are really major quality of life factors, we see broadband becoming a major element of other parts of our lives, including healthcare, entertainment and retail. Some of these changes are likely to be permanent when this pandemic subsides, and all of them have downstream effects that we need to be thinking about.”
With COVID suddenly forcing huge parts of our lives online, the need for reliable broadband connection is greater than ever before. However, even as more aspects of life shift online, many essential services that help provide broadband access become less accessible. The digital divide, that represents the gap between those with reliable, fast connections and those without, has been intensified by the conditions of the pandemic. Public locations such as libraries, which are one of the few free points of internet access, are often closed or operating with reduced hours because of the pandemic.
Despite the urgent need for increased broadband access it can be tricky to identify where underserved communities exist and how underserved they might be. Simply measuring internet speed on a given computer is difficult and can be affected by outside factors such as other programs running on the same computer or distance from the wifi router one is using. Additionally, the definitions of what broadband is can vary between rural and urban areas, further complicating comparisons of broadband access between communities. Finally, many areas have not been heavily examined and there is little data about the state of internet access in many communities across the US, making the identification of these underserved communities much more challenging. Broadband mapping only began on a nationwide level in 2009, meaning that the data that exists is relatively limited and the systems for data management are still new.
Where We’re Headed
Granberg: “I’ve witnessed a few attempts to bring rural stakeholders together and talk about broadband issues, also broadband issues at the urban municipal level. The problem before the project was no one could agree on the facts. No one could agree what the problem was, where it was, and people just didn’t have productive discussion on a policy level. Bringing together that map on the lay of the land was a really key catalyst to getting the policy folks to sit down, have some common ground to reflect upon, and figure out what next steps would be. I think that and a few other factors really led to rural broadband in Utah getting a huge jumpstart.”
While companies have been reporting broadband access at the census block level, new regulations mean that companies will soon have to provide that data in service territory polygons that can be turned into fabric points. While the FCC has yet to create specific rules for how these polygons will function, it will hopefully become a more reliable way to map and measure internet speeds throughout the US by creating data at the address level. However, this effort will require a massive amount of mapping and data to be implemented and the FCC is looking for public and commercial partners.
Under the Broadband Data Act, the FCC will attempt to crowdsource data to validate the mapping and identify areas of error. Additionally, the FCC will have a challenge process where states can challenge the map and the underlying data if they have concerns about its accuracy.
The Important Role of GIOs
Johnson: “Having that big picture view is important. What’s most important in my mind is supporting the needs of policy makers… I think the highest and best function of a state GIS office is to provide that information that informs policy makers. You’ll notice I’m using the word information as opposed to data, they’re different things; data is a raw ingredient and information is what informs and provides insights and helps a policy maker understand a situation. GIS is unparalleled in its ability to take these complex situations and show what’s going on and help people understand that.”
With so much changing as a result of COVID-19 GIOs have a vital role to play in informing state policy as it seeks to adapt to this new world. While the details of what policies will be pursued will vary from state to state, broadband is a common theme and is often packaged alongside other issues such as climate change preparations or public safety. While COVID has created difficult economic conditions and stretched budgets thin, policy makers are still trying to find ways to expand broadband access for all their constituents as demand increases. To make these difficult decisions and properly distribute resources policy makers rely on GIS offices to help turn data into useful information that can create better policy.
Learn more: It’s Time for a Full-color Approach to Broadband