A new report highlights the importance of baseline data with case studies of cities and states bridging the digital divide.
Before states expand their broadband infrastructure, they must first improve their mapping and data collection to ensure they have an accurate picture of where households lack connectivity, a recent report from the nonprofit NewDEAL Forum advises.
Gaps in broadband infrastructure often affect poorer and more rural communities disproportionately, limiting digital literacy, access to telehealth services and more. Titled “Bridging the Digital Divide,” the report from NewDEAL’s Broadband Task Force aims to showcase which cities have found success and how.
Expanding middle-mile infrastructure to reach these communities is complicated and expensive, the report says. It can be costly to connect households in sparsely populated suburban and rural areas and to install fiber in challenging terrain, making collecting and mapping access even more important.
The report showcases Brownsville, Texas, formerly considered one of the least connected cities in the U.S. In 2019, newly elected Mayor Trey Mendez put together a task force to collect information on connectivity, and he then used the data to create maps that identified where infrastructure was lagging behind. The maps helped Brownsville secure American Rescue Plan Act funds for a 95-mile fiber network that is expected to be a sustainable long-term, middle-mile solution to make broadband more affordable.
The Washington Statewide Broadband Office ran a first-in-the-nation survey, asking 44,000 residents to conduct one-minute speed tests. Florida’s Office of Broadband did something similar, putting $1.5 million toward mapping initiatives that will "identify where broadband capable networks exist, where service is available to users, and gaps in rural areas, along with download and upload transmission speeds across Florida," according to the report. A recent bill in Colorado calls for collecting more granular mapping data to get a better understanding of needs of underserved communities.
The report also highlights programs that are improving broadband access for students, who are increasingly reliant on high-speed internet at home.
“Going to school these days requires books, backpacks, and broadband. Especially after this last year, more and more of our economy is online, and we have an obligation to make sure every Coloradan can participate in that economy,” Colorado State Sen. Jeff Bridges said in the report. “Connecting unserved and underserved communities to high-speed reliable internet creates more opportunity for everyone, and increases statewide equity and prosperity for all of our families.”
Designed as a resource for state and local IT managers, the NewDeal report also presents case studies, use cases and descriptions of broadband-enabled applications that other states have introduced. The examples ranged from initiatives in Oakland, Calif., and Clark County, Nev., that delivered free Wi-Fi to underserved families, to a public-private partnership in San Jose that reduced the cost barrier to broadband access and launched an open-source blockchain-based internet-of-things network for smart city applications.