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Mapping the Digital Divide: How GIS is Impacting Lives

Gis Day Logo 300x97November 14, 2018 - Today we recognize GIS Day, established in 1999 to show how location intelligence through the use of geographic information systems (GIS) touches everyone. It is now a global event that demonstrates how far GIS extends into people’s lives and provides a forum for users to showcase their unique accomplishments using GIS.

Connected Nation uses GIS to better understand the current broadband landscape, analyze service availability and potential expansion impacts, collect local feedback on coverage gaps, and evaluate network engineering data collections. We believe that everyone belongs in a Connected Nation and GIS is an essential tool in the analysis and display of information to direct broadband-related decision-making at the local, state, and federal levels.

“We need to tell the stories of the people in the Digital Divide and how a lack of broadband access impacts their lives,” said Ashley Hitt, director of GIS Services. “GIS helps us analyze and create visualizations to tell that story and show where broadband expansion focus should occur to get more people connected.”

In working to tell the story of the Digital Divide, unfortunately, current federal data collection efforts to determine where broadband services are available is inadequate for local policy planning. Broadband providers are required to file the Form 477 with the FCC twice a year to submit census blocks where broadband is deployed and accessible by consumers. However, many issues exist within the aggregated broadband dataset when trying to determine where the Digital Divide remains:

  • Census Block Boundaries: Form 477 requires fixed broadband providers to report census blocks where they provide any level of service, leading to overstatement when all locations within a census block do not have broadband access.

  • Census Block Sizes: In rural areas, census blocks are larger in size and therefore have more overstatement possibilities; for example, over 3,200 census blocks are larger in size than the District of Columbia and five are larger than the state of Connecticut.

  • Fixed Wireless as Census Blocks: Fixed wireless coverage for Form 477 is filed as census blocks rather than propagation models, leading to the most overstatement, especially in rural areas.

  • Provider Resources: Providers that do not have the tools/software to process and/or visualize their filing data cannot confirm its accuracy, leading to both overstatement and understatement of service.

Based on the presence of these issues, Connected Nation developed a confidence rating methodology that analyzes all census blocks reported as having residential broadband at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload to determine the likelihood of all households within a census block having broadband access.

Confidencerating Map 2018 11 10 300x159The results of the confidence rating analysis show a high/medium/low probability of each census block having broadband access to all households, based on the most current, publicly available FCC Form 477 dataset, broadband deployment current as of June 30, 2017. It should be noted that a low confidence rating does not mean CN believes there is not residential broadband available in that census block or that the provider-filed data is incorrect, only that it warrants investigation to confirm whether or not broadband is available to all locations within the census block.

Based on the FCC’s broadband data, 8.3 million American households (7%) are reported to be in the Digital Divide and lack broadband access at speeds of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload; however, when the low data confidence rating is taken into account, this problem may potentially impact up to 12.3 million households, or 34.7 million U.S. citizens.

In order to better understand where the Digital Divide exists and make policy decisions on where broadband subsidies should be distributed, a more accurate and granular broadband map must be developed, with a focus on sub-census block level data collection.

Connected Nation has worked with broadband providers of all sizes and technologies across the country to collect and develop maps of granular broadband service. CN also works to collect citizen feedback on where the maps are incorrect to refine the maps, while also conducting field validation by telecom engineers to ensure accuracy of the network maps and information used to expand broadband.

It is possible to build a more accurate and granular broadband map. Connected Nation continues to lead the way, because everyone belongs in a Connected Nation.

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About the Author: Ashley Hitt is the Director of GIS Services for Connected Nation. She oversees the day-to-day operations of the GIS team. She’s responsible for developing strategies using GIS to provide data visualization solutions that impact policy, economic development, and the Digital Divide.