Jun 23, 2020

Mapping internet access: no clear data on haves and have-nots

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That's a problem the FCC can address.

Every day this week, Marketplace Tech is dropping an episode in a new series called “The Internet Is Everything,” where we look at access, cost and infrastructure. This fall, the FCC is planning to award up to $16 billion to increase broadband availability across the country. But the data the FCC is using to decide where broadband is most needed is wildly inaccurate, even by the agency’s own admission. 

I spoke with Nicol Turner Lee, who researches technology access as a fellow in the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. She said the COVID-19 pandemic has made the mapping problem even more obvious. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Nicol Turner Lee (Photo courtesy of Turner Lee)

Nicol Turner Lee: When you don’t know where broadband is deployed, you find yourself in the situation that we actually saw with educational institutions — 53 million school kids mandated to stay at home, [and] out of that, about 15 to 18 million, we believe, without broadband access in their neighborhood or in their household. The fact that we cannot get accurate, clear data, you don’t even know where to start when it comes to serving individuals within their community or within their homes. This is problematic, and I would say even more amplified as part of the coronavirus outbreak, because without that data, the absence of it makes it just so topsy-turvy and so unclear on how we begin to solve the digital divide.

Molly Wood: Do you feel like collecting accurate data has not been a priority? How did we get in this position where this information is so unhelpful in some ways?

Turner Lee: I was going through some old paperwork, and one of the papers that I actually ran across was one in the mid-2000s, when the first national broadband map was actually released. At that time, it corresponded with the National Broadband Plan, which was a federal imperative to start this process of inventorying where broadband access was and what the correct strategies were to actually close or narrow the digital divide. What that suggests to me is we’ve had the starts and stops of broadband data. It’s the fact that the United States has been somewhat lackadaisical and really paying attention to the collection and aggregation of useful broadband data that allows us to, again, map out assets of what’s existing, but also identify areas where we need to do just a better job of getting people connected.

Wood: It sounds like what you’re describing is really an underinvestment. I wonder, to what extent have we also left that up to companies to dictate and decide?

Turner Lee: That is somewhat the case, and so as a result of that, the coverage maps that we see are largely dictated by where the return of investment is. If we were to speak about this pre-coronavirus, perhaps it would be necessary and critical that we have the information, but not a priority. Right now, it’s a priority. We need some government oversight that allows us to get accurate, complete and honestly, sufficient data at a variety of levels.

Wood: Tell me, are you optimistic and given that COVID-19 has, in so many ways, exposed so many inequalities, but not least of which is one of these, and the fact that we may have to engage in remote learning and remote work for a long time? Are you optimistic that closing this divide could become a bigger priority now?

Turner Lee: I’m both optimistic and pessimistic, I’m not gonna lie. I’m optimistic that something that I’ve worked on for 25 years is finding like a headline versus a byline because normally broadband is just not discussed. But I’m pessimistic because we didn’t have a solution before this pandemic, and I’m not sure we have a solution post-pandemic. We are still in the phase where we think deployment is the only answer. Let me just say this about kids going back to school. I know there’s a lot of conversation about that right now. But what if that one kid in that classroom gets infected? They’re going to have to go on quarantine for 14 days and potentially a whole classroom. No one has spoken about how we stop this disruption of learning among our school-age students. We’ve had one national round of this, and unless we actually think of not just the deployment, but the adoption-and-use side, we’re going to find ourselves in the same boat. That may require us to reimagine education, to think about a digital toolkit that’s available to every student that’s out there.

Related interview: More insight from a listener

Geoff Wiggins with wife Claire and son. (Photo courtesy of Wiggins)

While it’s easy to talk about the maps in abstract, for Geoff Wiggins, it is real. He works in IT at a university in Columbus, Ohio. He and his family moved about 35 miles outside the state capital five years ago. But after they made an appointment with the local cable provider to install the internet, he got a call from the company:

Geoff Wiggins: “I have bad news. The maps were wrong. We don’t service your address.” Here I’ve closed on this home, I’ve got the keys, we’re packing up the old house, it’s going in the back of the U-Haul, we’re on our way to move this stuff over to the new location, and we find out there’s no internet service provider at our house. Nine hundred feet to my north, about five houses, is where the internet line ends.

The engineering team took a look at what it was going to take to bring service from my neighbor’s house to here, and that my contribution to the infrastructure costs to connect my house was $31,880. That’s a little out of my reach, unfortunately. We’ve not paid them to do that. We have two cellphones through Verizon Wireless. We receive about 75 gigabytes a month per phone, and we can tether up to 30 gigabytes to our laptops each. 

Since the pandemic, our internet utilization has gone completely off the rails. We have had to ration our service as if it were a very limited commodity. When other people were concerned about toilet paper shortages and paper towel shortages, we were worried about hitting our data caps, because that’s our livelihood. That comes at the expense of our child’s education. Anything that was high-bandwidth, like a video, or graphics or anything that required a significant amount of data, we loaded up the car and we drove to the local community college and we sat in the parking lot. 

Much of my son’s second grade was spent in the back seat of a car. We’ve seen him acting differently because he’s missing out on social interactions. While other kids in his grade were attending online Zoom study dates and Google Meets and things of that nature, he wasn’t able to do that. When we went to the parking lot to utilize the Wi-Fi at the community college, he did his homework. Then he played some video games. He played for about a half-hour, then he stopped and closed his laptop. I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “Well, I have to stop playing now. I don’t want to run them out of the internet.” My son at 8 years old did not understand that data is not truly a finite resource. We just label it as finite. 

I don’t view myself as a rural broadband issue. I think we’re papered in that way because we like to talk about how difficult it is to reach remote locations, but I’m in central Ohio. I’m right outside the state capital. I’m miles, a short bike ride, to three of the largest data centers in the Midwest, and we don’t have connectivity. It’s not about Netflix, it’s really about sustaining employment. If my employer and countless other people like me, their employers say, you were able to work from home during the pandemic — we’re going to make that permanent and save on real estate costs. I’ve got a real problem on my hands because this is not sustainable.

Also watching:

Earlier this month, the FCC voted 3-to-2 to move ahead with awarding this $16 billion in broadband buildout investment. The agency also said it would work on creating updated, more accurate maps and use those to award an additional $4 billion in infrastructure investment. The two Democrats on the FCC, who voted against the plan, said, in essence, we need the maps first and then the money.

Tomorrow on the show we’ll hear from former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who will tell us that uneven access to the internet isn’t just a rural and urban investment problem, but it’s also about race and poverty.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer