By Sascha Meinrath
Pennsylvania enjoys near-universal access to reliable broadband service … if you believe the official maps.
However, if you talk with rural Pennsylvania residents about their experiences with broadband service in their communities, they may have a different perspective.
Pennsylvanians too often experience spotty coverage, slow service, and expensive pricing. A new wave of government funding could help; however, identifying the areas that need federal funding requires access to accurate and precise data, which is why my team published our newest broadband map, which currently covers most Pennsylvania counties and is updated as counties release their data.
Decision makers should use every resource available to make informed choices about which areas of the state need broadband grant funding.
The federal government has allotted $42.45 billion to states to expand high speed internet access across the country through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. Pennsylvania is likely to receive well over $1 billion from this program, and we need to make sure that the government officials who are deciding how to distribute this funding use the most accurate data available.
In 2009, I and a team of network researchers created Measurement Lab (M-Lab), an open-source, broadband measurement initiative that collects and makes broadband speed data freely and publicly available. M-Lab has grown to become the go-to resource for hundreds of millions of people who want to test their broadband connection to see whether it lives up to the service level promised by their internet service providers (ISPs).
Today, M-Lab is the world’s largest repository of free and open broadband data, with billions of tests spanning over a dozen years.
My research team at Penn State, X-Lab, has helped develop additional tools to document discrepancies between “official” claims and broadband reality: from large-scale maps of current broadband testing results (e.g., https://broadbandmapping.com) to tools to monitor the reliability of your Internet connection over time (e.g., https://radartoolkit.com).
The stark differences between our assessments and the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) “National Broadband Map” illustrate just how problematic documenting today’s digital divides has become.
As just one example, the FCC uses 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds and 3Mbps upload speeds as its definition of “broadband.” That’s fine if you’re streaming a standard definition movie to one device.
But if one child is watching an HD streaming movie, while another is playing online video games, and your spouse is on a telehealth call while you’re trying to have a professional conference call, 25/3 Mbps is going to result in a lot of problems.
Given that household wifi today serves multiple smartphones, laptops, tablets and other devices, anything less than 100 Mbps is underserved by today’s standards.
Our current maps show that more than half of Pennsylvania receives residential broadband coverage below 100 Mbps, and approximately 1/4th averages less than 25 Mbps. Comparing real-world tests with the FCC’s official maps, which claim that 94% of the state receives 100 Mbps or greater service, our findings demonstrate a need for systematic assessment of the on-the-ground reality of broadband adoption.
A key problem of “official” maps is that they largely use data provided by ISPs – who are incentivised to overstate their speeds and service areas. In essence, when an ISP claims that an area is “served,” government support to bridge the digital divide becomes unavailable.
Our data come from the 250 million broadband speed tests that American households conduct yearly–tens of millions in Pennsylvania alone–using M-Lab’s online tools. In addition, and unlike the FCC’s data, our data is open source and freely available, which means that broadband experts and even private industry can scrutinize it.
Our newest broadband map is a free resource and open dataset that will both aid decision makers as well as people across the Commonwealth who want to apply for federal funding to build broadband networks, providing a one-stop shop for identifying un- and under-served areas of the state to make the case for their grant applications.
Pennsylvania also needs to invest in the research and scientific work needed to document on-the-ground broadband information that is accurate, publicly and freely accessible, and peer-reviewable.
State and federal officials must “use science” to collect accurate information that documents broadband reality. Accurate and open maps and data will hold both ISPs and government agencies to account, and bolster efforts to achieve digital equity and universal broadband adoption across the Commonwealth and the nation.
Sascha Meinrath is the Palmer Chair in Telecommunications at Penn State University, co-founder of M-Lab, and director of X-Lab, an innovative think tank focusing on the intersection of vanguard technologies and public policy.
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