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Dec 31, 2020

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

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That's a problem the FCC can address.
This episode originally aired on Jun. 23, 2020.

All this week on “Marketplace Tech,” I’m revisiting some of our shows from 2020 that touch on issues I think will continue to be pivotal in the year ahead. Chief among those is the internet. It now touches pretty much every part of our lives, but not everyone has access to good service.

Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission announced the results of a $9 billion auction to provide high-speed broadband to homes and businesses that don’t have it. The money comes from something called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, and this is just the first chunk of money to come from it. The FCC is planning to allocate billions more.

But the data the FCC is using to map 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 says the coronavirus pandemic has made the mapping problem even more obvious. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

A photo of Nicol Turner Lee, who researches technology access as a fellow in the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.
Nicol Turner Lee (Photo courtesy of Turner Lee)

Nicol Turner Lee: 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.

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The team

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