As the pandemic recedes, we’ve learned that universal access to the online world through broadband service is essential for participation in modern American life. The urgency to create full broadband coverage echoes past programs to develop nationwide networks for electricity, telephone, and interstate highways. Each of those ushered in major changes and improvements in communities across the country.
Broadband is often portrayed as a monochrome issue: People either have access to it or they do not. In reality, broadband is multidimensional or multicolored. Its benefits depend on factors, such as availability, speed, affordability, education, and adoption. For the nation to achieve a complete, equitable, and beneficial distribution of broadband services, we need a full-color approach.
The availability of broadband attracts the most attention. We speak of the digital divide as the invisible boundary that separates homes where broadband service is available from those where it is not. Exactly where that boundary is located is a critical piece of information for determining where to direct funding. Unfortunately, we lack sufficiently detailed nationwide data and maps to accurately depict this boundary. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is working to create new broadband maps that will show broadband availability and speeds at individual service addresses, but those new maps will not be available until next year at the earliest.
In the meantime, the U.S. Treasury Department has released $360 billion in Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery and Capital Projects funding. These funds can be used by states for broadband development projects. Additional broadband funding ($65 billion) is expected in an infrastructure bill later this year. The rush to provide resources targeted to broadband availability is welcome. Proceeding before we have the right maps means we are likely to miss many eligible locations.
Affordability is another important dimension of broadband. While availability tends to map to population density, affordability follows socio-economics. Affordability gaps in broadband access occur in urban and rural areas. Because there is no accurate collection of data on pricing of broadband services across the U.S., it is more difficult to determine which households are without affordable broadband access.
The dimensions do not stop there. Even where broadband is available and affordable, there are still Americans who do not use it because they lack computers/smartphones or do not have the appropriate online skills. They may have concerns about security or other issues that stymie their participation in the ever-growing online world. We must address these issues as we continue to shift to more online services.
The conversation about broadband often ends there, as if providing access and ensuring that Americans can use it were the end goals — like closing the digital divide is just a giant construction project. We argue that the best measures of broadband are not access or utilization but rather the societal impacts generated with broadband-enabled services.
Take, for example, remote learning environments that allow two-way video participation in classrooms and telehealth, which reduces the spread of infectious diseases and provides treatment opportunities for individuals who are unable to travel. That’s not to mention online banking and retail, ride sharing, smart buildings, autonomous vehicles, and more.
In truth, broadband will impact many aspects that contribute to economic vitality and the overall quality of life. Just as the interstate highway system altered development and lifestyle patterns across the U.S., broadband will produce a comparable and, perhaps, an even greater transformation.
How do we measure and assess this kaleidoscope of societal, economic, and environmental impacts tied to broadband? How do we paint a full-color picture? Our answer lies in the growing discipline of geoanalytics. This is the marriage of digital maps with databases, enabling analyses of where things are happening to uncover patterns that provide a deeper understanding of connections between seemingly disparate information. Every issue has a spatial or location component — everything happens somewhere — and the key with geoanalytics is to create map layers and attached data that represent each of these dimensions.
Compiling the data to analyze all of these factors is the pathway to creating a full-color understanding of the multidimensional nature of broadband. Understanding where the benefits will be greatest should drive the priority setting for where to focus funding and other resources. This is an important step that should happen before we start spending money to close the digital divide.
States are scrambling to prioritize their use of coronavirus relief funds while thinking ahead to the availability of billions more targeted at broadband. Accurately mapping the locations of the unserved can be done now. But, let’s not stop there. Let’s use this moment to think in full color about the data and capabilities we need in order to understand the potential of broadband. Collecting data for map-based analytics can and should be an ongoing activity that serves as a living dashboard for measuring the societal impacts of broadband. It will be a tiny investment relative to the full value of benefits that universal broadband can bring.