An estimated 60 million Americans currently lack access to broadband services, according to real estate data and analytics company LightBox. That figure quadruples the 2021 Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) estimate of the digital divide, which is based on census tract data.
Any American that has spent time away from the big city knows that internet in the countryside or a small town can be sluggish (cue frozen Zoom screens), or simply non-existent. As education, healthcare, courts and work moved online during the pandemic, internet access became akin to a human right, and infrastructure development a necessity.
The Joe Biden administration has recently stepped in with a couple of bills that help address the digital divide. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed by the president in August 2021, allocates $42.5 billion to states and territories for expanding internet access. More recently, the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program promises more than $500 million in awards and $1 billion more in funding for Tribal communities. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) calculates that at least 18 percent of those living on Tribal lands can’t access broadband, compared to 4 percent of people across the rest of the U.S. A White House statement from August about the program states that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration had already received 300 applications requesting $5 billion in funding for Tribal broadband.
With this new flow of money, however, states, territories and Indigenous Tribes still need to know where to develop. Accurate maps of infrastructure and access are a missing puzzle piece for much of the U.S.
In Washtenaw County, Michigan, accurately mapping broadband service will constitute about a quarter of the work needed to secure completely reliable internet, Chris Scharrer, founder and CEO of DCS Technology Design, told NPR member station WFAE in Charlotte. DCS is the firm overseeing the county’s broadband expansion initiative.
While the FCC is in the process of building a comprehensive map of nationwide broadband availability, by way of Congress’s 2020 Broadband DATA Act, it seems the final product won’t come for a while. The Commission published an update this summer announcing that it is now collecting information from over 2,500 broadband providers.
A handful of states — such as Virginia, New York and Georgia — are developing their own maps. Georgia went to the private sector for help in seeking to take on its own digital divide. LightBox started building the state’s map in 2019, the first broadband map the company tackled. The process revealed more than 400,000 areas that the government hadn’t known were unserved. Georgia’s map is now available to the public. If you zoom into a blue area, you’ll find little red dots indicating unserved locations. Now, county after county is becoming “broadband ready,” which includes planning for infrastructure expansion by amending any local comprehensive plan and creating a new ordinance related to broadband access.
Eric Frank, founder and CEO of LightBox, told TriplePundit that his team was inspired to learn more about broadband needs in the U.S. “We realized that we’re the closest thing that anybody could have to a national map of all this data, and so we started investing in our capabilities,” he said. The same month that Georgia contracted LightBox, the information and technology company launched its "Location Intelligence" broadband initiative. The company’s efforts have led to a nationwide SmartFabric connectivity map which now includes U.S territories.
In the mapping process, Frank’s team quickly realized that the type of data they would need for the map was distinctly different from the information they usually seek for real estate clients. The real estate industry focuses on the 80 percent of the U.S. that is generally described as economically viable, Frank explained. “We had to put in place an effort to go out and collect data,” he said. Some of that data was already available from places like county assessors. Tribal areas, on the other hand, required investigation. They looked at satellite imagery, drew building footprints, and analyzed cellphone data to see when and where people were congregating. Here’s Frank’s illustration of the goal: "You don't need to bring broadband to a silo, but you certainly need to bring broadband to the farmer's farm…”
Texas is the next state that will use LightBox’s services, and Frank said another U.S. state just signed on with the company, with a dozen more in discussions. According to its website, LightBox is the only company that has created a broadband map of served and unserved at a structure-level for two states using more than 4,000 data sources. Although the maps are created with a specific purpose in mind, Frank said they’re multifunctional — useful, for example, to highway departments and emergency services as well.
To make a long story short, LightBox has become committed to helping states make use of federal funds to expand broadband infrastructure and tackle the stubborn digital divide. When you talk to Frank, you feel a sense of mission. Speaking about populations with poor internet access, Frank said: “You wouldn't be surprised if I told you, 'Well, those are also people that are in a flood zone, and those are also people that are in a heat zone. Those are also people that were put in neighborhoods where there might be brownfield or other environmental issues.’” Data from Bloomberg Cities backs up Frank’s observations. A 2021 report found an inverse correlation between broadband access and poverty in the largest U.S. cities.
LightBox has been reaching out to advocacy groups to engage them in the wealth of data the company has accumulated and organized. “We’re not a very big company in terms of people, but we try to raise awareness that we have this great data,” Frank said. “There’s a commercial aspect to it, but we are very keen on trying to help bridge the digital divide and provide services to help them.”
Frank emphasizes, however, that maps aren’t going to finish the work of getting the country connected. Governments need to forge the right partnerships and use them to actually lay down fiber. That’s where the hard work comes in. Maps are just a tool, he said. “Somebody’s got to put the proverbial shovel in the ground.”
Expanding broadband to those forgotten areas of the U.S. will be a major undertaking. The question arises: What will success mean? Here’s a comprehensive vision from Jordan Beezley of Colorado’s Department of Regulatory Agencies, telling Pew Trusts: “I don't have to think about whether or not the house I'm going to buy has electricity or whether or not that electricity will work. Once we are at that point [with broadband], I think we've won."
Image credit: Towfiqu Barbhuiya/Unsplash
Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn.