Disconnected in a Connected World: The Approach to Tech That Can Help Solve the Broadband Access Problem

Chip Spann, Director of Engineering & Technical Services, Connected Nation
Director of Engineering & Technical Services, Connected Nation

Broadband is a staple in our everyday lives. Without it, our work, school, health, and even social life would be greatly impacted. For most people, the ability to work and learn remotely, or even visit a doctor, from the convenience of home is something that is taken for granted.

Imagine being told that high-speed internet exists where you live, yet you know that this isn’t true. Many Americans living in rural locations are facing this frustrating problem every day. Federal broadband maps indicate that they have access, yet they are not able to access broadband networks because they simply do not exist.

Current broadband coverage data is often overstated, especially in rural communities. Why?  Internet service providers (ISPs) provide broadband data to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) twice per year (March and September) via Form 477. ISPs use this form to report broadband coverage but, unfortunately, it is at the census block level. That means that if one person in a census block has access to high-speed internet, the FCC broadband map indicates that the entire block is considered connected.

As a result, rural locations are often left in the dark. When a census block is considered connected at the FCC’s definition of broadband (greater than or equal to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload), broadband-specific grants and funding are nearly impossible to obtain.

That’s why Connected Nation (CN) leverages a different approach when possible—using state-of-the-art mapping methodologies and technology to validate and verify broadband internet in even the most rural locations with the goal of getting every American connected. 

How Tech Can Help the Unconnected

CN’s most recent project was in Caldwell County, Texas. Our team conducted an outside plant (OSP) audit, and field validation of broadband provider specific data, which included locating, identifying, and documenting targeted wireline platforms such as digital subscriber line (DSL), hybrid fiber coaxial (HFC), fiber-to-the-home (FTTH), middle mile fiber optic transport lines, and fixed wireless transmit locations. CN’s validation and verification methodologies, based on industry accepted standards, have undergone stringent reviews to eliminate the overstatement of broadband coverage and to develop mapping products that inform and promote data-driven decisions, which eventually lead to expanded or improved broadband access.

During these field validation activities, CN identified areas believed to be erroneous Form 477 census blocks, mapped targeted wireline infrastructure, and entered the data into a tablet equipped with the Esri Field Collector. It located and documented strategic vertical assets, such as water tanks, broadcast towers, rooftops, and utility poles. These could be leveraged for fixed wireless broadband expansion using digital photography software, which geocodes and date/time-stamps the photographs. It then used portable and handheld spectrum analyzers to identify the spectrum being used by fixed wireless broadband providers and worked with its geographic information systems (GIS) department to correct and refine the map for Caldwell County. These methodologies have been approved by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). They have often cited CN’s protocols as representing industry best practices.

Jennifer Harris, State Program Director of Connected Nation Texas (CN Texas), believes “our field validation work will complement the on-going multi-sector community broadband survey and will support the continued development of Caldwell County’s broadband landscape.”

With this multi-pronged approach to close the Digital Divide, success is hinged on each community’s engagement along with accurate data. The work CN currently does on the ground to validate and verify data in each community has become a necessity and has become critical to identifying areas that are unserved with no access at all or underserved with limited access or low-speeds.

CN clearly understands how more accurate and granular mapping of broadband service areas can empower local, state, and federal leaders to make better data-driven decisions that positively impact people and open doors when it comes to broadband-related funding. It also is a more impactful and effective way to improve lives by providing innovative solutions that expand the access, adoption, and use of high-speed internet and its related technologies to all 

 

 

Chip Spann, Director of Engineering & Technical Services, Connected Nation
Director of Engineering & Technical Services, Connected Nation

About the author: Chip Spann is the Vice President of Engineering & Technical Services for Connected Nation. In that role, Chip leads the ETS team in wireline and mobile drive testing verification services related to CN’s contract with the Universal Services Administrative Company. These include discussions with broadband service providers on data collection for the development of state broadband maps, outside plant audits, field validation/verification projects, propagation models for wireless coverage, and solutions for providers, communities, and states.