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Digital Inclusion Week: Why Rural America is Still Not Connected 

The following op-ed was written by Connected Nation's Chairman & CEO, Tom Ferree, as part of National Digital Inclusion Week (May 7-11)  

Teacher And Students 200x300 Many of America's children must go outside the home to access the internet for homework and other school projects

(May 7, 2018) - The internet is no longer a luxury. Its expansion into rural America is as important today as the expansion of electricity was in the 1930s. To be left out of a digital world is to be left out of the opportunity for better jobs, education, and healthcare.

It’s something lawmakers have realized and embraced. Over the last six months, more than a dozen bills have been introduced at the state and federal levels to expand broadband to those who find themselves on the wrong side of the Digital Divide.

But there is a question that needs to be answered before any infrastructure investment is made—who truly has access to broadband (high-speed internet) in America?

Right now, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) relies on data from a federal filing, known as Form 477, to identify where the greatest need is and who does or does not have coverage. This data is submitted by Internet Services Providers (ISP’s) themselves and, although it does give us a snapshot of some coverage, it’s not as accurate as you may think.

Here’s why; U.S. census blocks are used for collecting Form 477 data. If a few people have coverage in a census block, it’s reported as entirely covered. But imagine if the census block is an area that’s both rural and urban? Or, if the census block is unusually large, such as in Alaska where they can be as big as the state of Connecticut? It’s easy to see how some people may have coverage in this area but a large portion is left out. Despite that issue, the census block is being reported as covered.

This is a huge problem for rural America, tribal lands, and even urban areas, where there are discrepancies from neighborhood to neighborhood, because the data does not drill down to a deeper level. We see a snapshot from a 10,000 foot level rather than up-close-and-personal where we can truly find the families, businesses, farmers, veterans, seniors, and others who are on the wrong side of this Digital Divide in our country.

Congress Tried to Fix It Once Before… Here’s Why It Didn’t Work

There was an effort in 2008 to collect better data, enabled by the Broadband Data Improvement Act, but it was done piecemeal—several different companies were awarded the work. Each state, through the State Broadband Initiative (SBI), was able to decide how to use the grant money to map where broadband service was available, where it could be expanded, and how to empower local “grassroots technology teams” to plan for better access.

Acting independently, each state hired nonprofits, for-profits, or used state agencies—some that had little to no experience mapping broadband services. That led to inconsistent results or compromised data that did not accurately map the broadband landscape. As a result, some unfortunate decisions were made regarding how billions in public and private dollars were spent and where broadband infrastructure was built.

We understand what happened because Connected Nation was among the companies who committed to doing the mapping and analysis work.

We were awarded just over 20 percent of the contracts, and because we handled the work needed in Alaska and Texas, we mapped 42 percent of the U.S. landmass. We used provider data coupled with field validation and consumer feedback mechanisms, allowing us the opportunity to consistently map specific technologies and refine those areas to a more accurate and granular level than was required by the submission requirements.

Others chose a different approach. At least one mapping agent decided to crowdsource the information using IP address transactions instead of mapping broadband coverage through infrastructure information. This led to depicting subscribed broadband rather than understanding where all broadband services were available. Multiple states did not produce models to determine fixed wireless access and instead showed the coverage as census blocks, buffered circles, or other large areas that drastically overstated where services were actually available.

How to Include All Americans

Seniors2 300x211 Many of our senior citizens are finding themselves isolated because they can't access the internet.

As we work to close digital equity gaps and include all Americans, we must take a smarter approach to ensure accurate broadband data maps are used to find appropriate solutions—by forming a national clearinghouse for the collection and analysis of broadband data.

This would provide a viable path for a neutral, nongovernment party to collect data in real time and to do validation and auditing of that data. This was how we were so effective in producing accurate broadband maps years ago, because we played that very role in 13 states and territories and were able to truly validate coverage.

We believe there should be more granular data collected nationally—at the street address or land parcel level of detail instead of by Census block.  The data collection should include finding out each provider’s coverage abilities, auditing the information, and collecting discrepancies and demand for services from local citizens.

Only then can we have a true understanding of who has access and who doesn’t, which providers overlap each other or could easily extend services to more people, and where we should actually invest in building broadband infrastructure.

This is more important now than ever before because even as we mark Digital Inclusion Week, we’re seeing the Digital Divide widening in America as new technology is deployed. Connected Nation’s concern is what’s happening to individuals and families in urban and rural areas where they are not keeping up. It’s hard to do anything in the twenty-first century without adequate access.

We have a chance to get it right this time by authorizing the creation of a single, qualified, independent entity to oversee how data is collected and analyzed—in a way that protects sensitive provider information, while providing a mechanism for the government to get the information it needs to make more responsible funding decisions for broadband buildout.  This simple solution to the challenge of ensuring no one living in this country is left out of what is an ever-evolving digital world.

Everyone belongs in a Connected Nation.

Ferreetom 021 W Best 682x1024 Headroom 200x300

About the Author: As the Chairman & CEO, Tom Ferree is responsible for the leadership of Connected Nation, a national non-profit enterprise, representing broadband and digital inclusion work in more than 30 states and U.S. territories. He is the driving force behind Connected Nation’s corporate culture that empowers a highly effective, driven, and socially compassionate team of professionals. His passionate and effective leadership has resulted in a diverse portfolio of offerings and services, for both public and private organizations, including, but not limited to:

⦁ Influencing federal, state, and local policy for the advancement of high-speed telecommunications deployment, digital inclusion, economic development, and workforce development programming, frequently sought for policy input and congressional testimony.

⦁ Leading a world class, next-generation broadband infrastructure mapping and GIS team—considered the subject matter expert in all things GIS relating to broadband and telecommunications.

⦁ Overseeing federal contracts for independent verification and validation services in support of USAC’s Mobility Fund Phase I ($350M).

⦁ Creating a community technology certification program, Connected Community Engagement Program (ConnectedSM), a national engagement that spans across several states and more than 360 communities nationwide.

⦁ Guiding Connected Nation to become a renowned national authority on digital inclusion programming and other matters relating to broadband.

Mr. Ferree also manages Connected Nation’s national board of directors in matters of governance and steering of corporate vision and planning. As Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Ferree was responsible for the oversight of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) State Broadband Initiative (SBI), a five-year project portfolio of 12 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, involving professional relations management for more than 1,500 national and local broadband providers and more than 120,000 Community Anchor Institutions (e.g., schools, libraries, hospitals, first responders).

In addition, Mr. Ferree led the implementation of Connected Nation’s No Child Left Offline and Computers 4 Kids programs which have resulted in the distribution of more than 6,000 computers and laptops to at-risk youth.

As VP of Project Management, Mr. Ferree was instrumental in securing a two-year, $4.4M grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for work in the Foundation’s United States Libraries Initiative. This effort focused on 16 U.S. Library Systems that were challenged with inferior connectivity and technology strategies.

Prior to joining Connected Nation, Mr. Ferree worked for the Commonwealth of Kentucky where he served as Chief of Staff for the Finance and Administration Cabinet as well as the Deputy State Chief Information Officer for Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher. He also served over ten years as a senior IT and Project Management professional for Kindred Healthcare and Hospital Corporation of America.

Mr. Ferree was among the 2010 ‘Forty Under 40’ awardees recognizing the Louisville area’s up-and-coming leaders under the age of 40 based on career achievements and community accomplishments.

He resides in Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife and two daughters where he serves his community on several civic and private boards and commissions.