It’s time for a full-color approach to solving the nation’s broadband problem

As the pandemic recedes, we’ve learned that universal access to the online world, through broadband service, is essential for participation in modern American life. The urgency to create full broadband coverage echoes past programs to develop nationwide networks for electricity, telephone and interstate highways. Each of those ushered in major changes and improvements in communities across the country.

Broadband is often portrayed as a monochrome issue: people either have access to it or they do not, like the electricity or telephone services that came before it. In reality, broadband is multi-dimensional or multi-colored. Its benefits depend on factors as diverse as availability, speed, affordability, education and adoption. For the nation to achieve a complete, equitable and beneficial distribution of broadband services, we need a full-color approach.

The availability of broadband attracts the most attention. We speak of the digital divide as the invisible boundary that separates homes where broadband service is available from those where it is not. Exactly where that boundary is located is a critical piece of information for determining where to direct funding. Unfortunately, we lack sufficiently detailed nationwide data and maps to accurately depict this boundary. The Federal Communications Commission is working to create new broadband maps that will show broadband availability and speeds at the individual service address, but those new maps will not be available until next year at the earliest.

In the meantime, the U.S. Treasury Department has released $360 billion in Coronavirus State & Local Fiscal Recovery and Capital Projects funding. These funds can be used by states for broadband development projects. Additional broadband funding is expected in an infrastructure bill (currently, $65 billion in the latest proposal) later this year. The rush to provide resources targeted to broadband availability is welcome. Proceeding before we have the right maps means that we are likely to miss many eligible locations.

Affordability is another important dimension of broadband. While availability tends to map to population density, affordability follows socio-economics. Affordability gaps in broadband access occur in urban and rural areas. Because there is no accurate collection of data on pricing of broadband services across the U.S., it is more difficult to determine which households are without affordable broadband access.

The dimensions do not stop there. Even where broadband is available and affordable, there are still Americans who do not use it because they lack computers or smartphones or do not have the appropriate online skills. They may have concerns about security or other issues that stymie their participation in the ever-growing online world. We must address these issues as we continue to shift to more online services.

The conversation about broadband often ends there, as if providing access and ensuring that Americans can use it was the end goal. As if closing the digital divide was a giant construction project. We argue that the best measures of broadband are not access or utilization, but rather the societal impacts generated with broadband-enabled services. These include education that can be delivered via remote online learning and two-way video participation in classrooms.

They include telehealth that enable patients and physicians to interact online, sharing medical data and images, and reaching elders and shut-ins who cannot travel unassisted. They include impacts on our transportation systems as more employers shift to a remote workforce with impacts on traffic volumes, air quality and ridership patterns on our transit systems. They include the configuration of our communities and where people will choose to live, shop and seek entertainment. In truth, broadband will impact many aspects that contribute to economic vitality and the overall quality of American life. Just as the interstate highway system altered development and lifestyle patterns across the US, broadband will produce a comparable and perhaps even greater transformation.

How do we measure and assess this kaleidoscope of societal, economic and environmental impacts tied to broadband? How do we paint a full-color picture? Our answer lies in the growing discipline of geoanalytics. This is the marriage of digital maps with databases, enabling analyses of where things are happening and uncovering patterns that provide a deeper understanding of connections between seemingly disparate information. Every issue has a spatial or location component — everything happens somewhere — and the key with geoanalytics is to create map layers and attached data that represent each of these dimensions.

Compiling the data to analyze all of these factors is the pathway to creating a full-color understanding of the multidimensional nature of broadband. Understanding where the benefits will be greatest should drive the priority-setting for where to focus funding and other resources. This is an important step that should happen before we start spending money to “close the digital divide.”

States are scrambling to prioritize their use of Coronavirus relief funds and thinking ahead to the availability of billions more in an infrastructure bill, targeted at broadband. Accurately mapping the locations of the unserved can be done now. But let’s not stop there. Let’s use this moment to think in full-color about the data and capabilities we need to understand the potential of broadband. That collection of data and map-based analytics can be, and should be, an ongoing activity that serves as a living dashboard for measuring the societal impacts of broadband. It will be a tiny investment relative to the full value of benefits that universal broadband can bring.

William F. Johnson is Senior Geospatial Strategist at Applied Geographics, Inc (AppGeo).  He is also the former Geographic Information Officer for the State of New York.

Tom Ferree is Chairman & CEO of Connected Nation.

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