Montana builds data-driven broadband coverage map
The state has contracted with LightBox, a real estate information and technology platform, to use its SmartFabric solution that integrates the company's core parcel, building footprint, address file and geocoding data with points of interest, cell phone location and tax assessor details.
To better determine how to apply funding to increase broadband reach, the state of Montana is putting together a detailed map of underserved, unserved and frontier locations.
“The maps that are available at a national level did not provide the level of detail necessary for us to be able to make good decisions about how we allocate potential future funding and current funding,” said Chad Rupe, the state’s broadband program manager. “One of the big gaps in the current national maps out there is that they rope off areas and designate certain areas as a whole as served or unserved, and they don’t really have granular-level data that allows people to make quality decisions for funding on certain locations," he said. "I think that’s what’s necessary to be able to move forward, especially with the change in demand on the systems.”
For help in distributing its $275 million grant program, the state has contracted with LightBox, a real estate information and technology platform, to use its SmartFabric product and GIS technology to create broadband serviceable location analytics and mapping capabilities. SmartFabric is a new off-the-shelf solution that integrates LightBox’s core parcel, building footprint, address file and geocoding data with points of interest, cell phone location and tax assessor details in a proprietary and flexible modeled fabric.
The company will also coordinate the collection, cleansing and geospatial mapping of all the data voluntarily contributed by internet service providers to create and maintain the broadband serviceability map for the state. Rupe said he expects to get the map published next month.
“'Map' is really a little bit of a misnomer because really what you’re looking for is that delta between what does the underlying data say in terms of locations and how does the overlay of what the ISPs provide show,” Lightbox CEO Eric Frank said. “A map is a nice way to visualize it, but really you need to do analytics on it. Then you need to make decisions on which providers among many in that area are suitable to do the build based upon their availability, based upon their track record, based upon their distance to their fiber.”
The company finds that delta by ingesting data from counties, taxing authorities, the U.S. Postal Service, ISPs and many databases. It then analyzes the data to reveal broadband coverage holes based on the way a state defines coverage and serviceable locations. For instance, Montana’s ConnectMT Act, passed last year, redefined “unserved” as any area with an upload speed of less than 25 megabits per second and a download speed of 10 Mbps. “Underserved” means anything less than 100/20 with low latency, while “frontier” means an area with no or extremely limited broadband service.
“With the increased demand for service that has gone on and the way definitions of service have changed, especially since the pandemic, there’s an increased need” for broadband, Rupe said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted broadband gaps not only in Montana, but nationwide, leading to action at the federal level. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 includes $362 billion that state and local governments can use to expand access to broadband services. As localities apply to states for a piece of that funding, governments need reliable data.
“Whenever there’s that much money considered to be invested in something by the government, there’s a lot of focus and attention on accurate data for planning,” said Bill Price, vice president of government solutions at LightBox. “Also … you need accurate data to track progress -- that the locations you’re funding to be served are actually having the infrastructure built out.”
Georgia is using LightBox’s SmartParcels technology, a nationwide parcel-based location fabric that connects parcel boundaries with more than 300 property and tax attributes, to build a database of serviceable locations. From there, the University of Georgia is producing the map using the company’s data. The map includes localities that have submitted grant applications.
“It includes things like grant-drawing tools, [providing] the ability for an applicant to draw an area on a map and download that data – that location data that is so critical to getting it right,” Price said. “Everybody wants this digital divide to be bridged.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.