Evaluate the Current State of Broadband Development

Learning Objective

Broadband development projects should collaborate with community-leaders and committee members to understand the data needed to bridge information gaps in terms of service coverage and quality. Projects can use mapping to facilitate development of feasibility studies and outreach to underserved communities. By taking a partner-driven approach to mapping, projects can develop the capacity to address a wide number of barriers to development.

Overview

Projects can partner with their Broadband Committee to identify a series of objectives for any mapping effort. Objectives can include gathering data on current levels of service and demand, take-rates in underserved areas, and infrastructure that can facilitate expansion. Data accumulated as part of the evaluation process can serve as a needs assessment and inform a formal feasibility study conducted as part of any infrastructure development project. The evaluation process allows the broadband development project to understand opportunities to increase “demand” and “supply” for internet service through the Broadband Committee.

Leaders of any mapping effort first need to supply-side barriers to developing broadband in underserved areas. It’s important to accurately measure the availability, quality, and affordability of broadband service to define underserved areas and their community barriers to broadband adoption. This can be conducted with a combination of FCC and speed test data. Communities can map physical broadband infrastructure to facilitate the deployment of middle-mile infrastructure, underground fiber and conduit, and utility poles. This often requires participation of relevant planning and zoning departments and internet service providers.

Projects also need to understand community demand for broadband to access and administer services, such as education and healthcare, and pursue economic opportunities, including e-commerce and telework. Surveys can collect data on demand, in terms of service-level and price point, for internet service, and use-cases for broadband that can inform digital inclusion efforts. This information provides the Broadband Committee with address-level market research on community demand – a tool that can facilitate expansion decisions when shared with partnering private internet service providers.

The LDD Role

Local Development Districts often have the experience and tools to evaluate regional levels of broadband development and identify opportunities to expand service. LDDs can apply their experience in community engagement, project management and geographic information system (GIS) mapping for infrastructure projects towards mapping broadband development assets and opportunities. Relevant data includes zoning, existing infrastructure, neighborhoods, community assets, and other features related to service. Staff members familiar with local, state, and federal regulations can navigate barriers to broadband development, and determine solutions to streamline regulations. Finally, LDDs can utilize their experience in community outreach and organization to encourage business and community assets to participate and promote surveys on broadband access and adoption.

Getting Started

Broadband development projects can utilize existing public data to map barriers and opportunities to expanding or improving service in underserved areas. State and federal government agencies provide data on broadband service availability and middle mile infrastructure that can be utilized to expand service. Fixed Broadband Deployment Data from FCC Form 477 provides information on broadband service availability, including speeds, number of providers, and solution type.

Projects should consider additional data to that produced by the FCC. Many ARC states like Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia, maintain internet coverage and physical infrastructure maps that combine data from federal and other sources to more accurately map broadband service availability in their state. Other states provide resources like speed test portals and online surveys that localities can download and use themselves. Policymakers may find free online tools like Antenna Search useful to locate vertical assets in their area. Ookla and M-Lab make address-level speed-test data available for public use, and BroadbandNow and Microsoft have performed independent measurement of broadband adoption. See the Broadband Availability Mapping Tools included in this guide to learn more about available tools in your region.

Even if your state offers broadband planning and deployment resources, your broadband team may identify additional areas of need that require outside expertise. Many localities contract with a non-profit technical assistance provider or a private broadband consultant to guide their community through the evaluation process and produce any associated needs or feasibility studies.

Best Practices

Empower project staff to coordinate results-driven partnerships with subject matter experts. Broadband projects can leverage outside support from consulting or non-profit organizations to guide broadband evaluation efforts and write formal needs assessment or feasibility reports. Project staff need to lead local implementation of the frameworks and guidance developed by subject-matter consultants or other partners. Local leadership ensures project staff grow the capacity to manage broadband development and that any strategy is actionable and led by community-goals for a successful project. One or more project staff, including the Broadband Project Manager, should coordinate local relationships with third-party contractors and develop expertise on broadband infrastructure. Broadband expert Chris Mitchell told DDAA, “A common failing of feasibility studies is [local governments] hire a consultant to do a report and they get it but no one has learned anything. There should be someone on the committee that is locally empowered and can take action with it.” [1] Its important that project staff build capacity to manage broadband development projects through their partnerships with subject matter experts.

Revisit the project’s goals after evaluating the community’s current level of broadband development. The broadband project should leverage insights developed from the mapping process to re-evaluate its initial goals. The mapping process can expose new challenges or problem-areas that that were not considered during the project planning phases. Projects can engage new partners and re-evaluate project goals as a result of the mapping process. Taking the time to verify that your project’s goals are evidence-based can create new opportunities to form partnerships and more effectively deliver service.


[1] Christopher Mitchell (Director, Center for Local Self-Reliance Community Broadband Networks Initiative) interview with DDAA on February 5, 2021.

Measuring Current Levels of Broadband Service

To set firm objectives for broadband development, projects need to develop a clear understanding of current service levels and availability across their region. Partnerships with private internet service providers (ISP) may enable access to proprietary data on existing infrastructure. Projects can additionally leverage a mix of public, surveyed, and ground-truthed data to understand their current state of broadband service.

Federal data can serve as an initial starting point for any broadband service evaluation. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) maintains a database of internet providers’ self-reported coverage areas for fixed and mobile internet, known as FCC Form 477 fixed broadband deployment data. FCC data may serve as a starting point for communities beginning to map their broadband coverage. Form 477 includes data on broadband service availability, including speeds, number of providers, and solution type.

FCC Form 477 data may be inaccurate, because it permits internet service providers to include, in their service-area, census blocks where they both provide service, or could provide service with minimal effort. Availability in a Census Block does not necessarily mean availability in the entire block. Census blocks can be massive in rural areas and include physical features that limit broadband availability to small portions of the block. The Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative’s comparison between FCC data and their own vividly reflects just how imprecise federal data can be.

Many broadband projects design and disseminate their own community broadband surveys to gather data on internet connectivity directly from residents and businesses in their community. Basic survey questions include whether or not the survey taker is an internet subscriber, and if so, the provider, type, and speed of internet they currently subscribe to. Targeted surveys might ask businesses about their digital skills gaps, non-profits about digital solutions, and residents about how internet can improve their quality of life.

Broadband projects should work with the Broadband Committee and community leaders to perform outreach for the survey. Outreach and survey materials should be distributed via online and paper formats, so those with and without internet access can participate. It’s useful for online instruments to integrate an internet speed test directly into the survey. Internet speed tests give the respondent the ability to directly report information about their connectivity speeds to the survey team. Paper surveys can be distributed at community centers, libraries, health facilities, schools / car-pool lines, shopping centers, or any centralized location that large groups of residents visit.

Best Practices

Leverage anchor institutions to reach key populations. Many localities struggle to obtain connectivity survey data from a representative sample of their community. Community gathering places, such as libraries, community centers, and even places of worship can help disseminate connectivity surveys to underserved and traditionally disadvantaged populations. Similarly, many localities have found success utilizing local school districts by sending paper surveys and fliers home with students. If restrictions on in-person gatherings are still in effect in your community, consider less conventional approaches, like partnering with prominent food delivery restaurants to distribute fliers with food orders.

Use public awareness campaigns and digital inclusion to engage community-members. Organizing survey dissemination in conjunction with a public awareness campaign about the benefits of broadband development can improve response rates. A public awareness campaign may include public service announcements, press releases, advertisements, community meetings, town halls, and even digital inclusion training. Coordinating the release of your awareness campaign and connectivity survey enhances both activities: more residents will learn about the survey through the awareness campaign and the awareness campaign can reinforce the impact of community-members input in shaping the community-driven broadband project.

Incorporate internet speed testing into your online connectivity survey. Speed tests are a powerful tool to obtain address-level, real-time data on broadband connectivity. Speed tests automatically measure internet speeds and pinpoint the survey taker’s geographic location, automating a key piece of the survey for residents. Many state and non-profit initiatives provide examples of how speed tests can be incorporated into online surveys, including Merit Network’s Michigan Moonshot SurveyNorth Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office’s internet connectivity survey, and the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council’s internet speed test.

Identifying Current Broadband Infrastructure Assets

Broadband projects can create an inventory of physical assets that can facilitate extension of broadband infrastructure. Vertical assets – tall structures including water and radio towers and tall buildings – can be equipped with fixed wireless equipment to transmit internet signal to groups of nearby homes. Underground cable or fiber conduits and nodes can be modified to loop in new cable/fiber networks with minimal excavation costs, although right-of-way access may be an issue. It is important to map the location of these assets as well as to establish ownership and contact information that facilitate access. Documenting existing physical assets can make a community more attractive to partnering ISPs by lowering the cost associated with identifying and deploying physical assets related to infrastructure deployment. Communities can leverage documentation of these assets in discussions with potential partners.

Determining Current Levels of Demand for Broadband Service

Project leaders should evaluate and map community-demand for broadband to create objective levels of service as part of any development effort. Broadband projects and Committee-members can gather survey data on potential market penetration, potential revenue per user, and desired service-levels from connectivity surveys. Key information informing these analyses include whether a business or household would consider subscribing to a new internet service, desired uses for internet and internet speeds, and willingness to pay for service. This data can serve as a valuable tool in attracting internet service providers (ISP) as partners. Community broadband projects can provide market research services for ISPs to extend service. Data on community demand for broadband can provide ISPs with market research that can inform their decision to extend infrastructure into unserved areas.

Case Study: Buckeye Hills Regional Council, Ohio

Buckeye Hills Regional Council, a regional council of governments in Southeast Ohio and DDAA member, conducted an extensive study of their eight-county region to evaluate its current state of broadband development and formulate corresponding strategies. The Buckeye Hills Regional Council team developed insights related to the collection and analysis of data related to broadband collection that may be helpful to other communities.

An integral part of evaluating the current state of broadband in the community is understanding the current level of broadband service being offered and compiling a list of physical assets that may be used to deploy additional infrastructure in the future. In Buckeye Hills’ experience, information on vertical assets and government properties is often readily available. However, due to its proprietary nature, locating existing privately-owned fiber optic cable is often not available.

The Buckeye Hills Regional Council tried a different approach to evaluating community demand for broadband service. Many communities evaluate community demand for broadband via surveys. Buckeye Hills found that market penetration can be accurately extrapolated by combining address and business data for the area in question with data from previous deployments done in areas with similar socioeconomic characteristics. Tim Reid, a broadband consultant working with Buckeye Hills, found data from deployments done by electric cooperatives in similar areas to be of particular use in these situations. “Cooperatives publish their information, they don’t consider it proprietary. Their industry groups gather that information and we know what kind of market penetration to project and what average revenue per user will be.”[1]


[1] Tom Reid (Broadband Consultant, Reid Consulting Group contracted with Buckeye Hills Regional Council) interview with DDAA on February 4, 2021.

Mapping Legal Barriers and Opportunities for Broadband Deployment

Forward-thinking broadband development projects map physical and legal barriers to and opportunities for broadband deployment that can increase or decrease the feasibility for service expansion. Barriers include access to utility-poles and rights-of-way at the local-level; restrictions on municipal or non-profit broadband at the state-level; rights to radio spectrums at the federal-level. In some states, like Pennsylvania, municipal and non-profit broadband providers need to provide ISPs the right of refusal to extend service to properties in their incumbent service areas.[1] Other states like Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia impose a bevy of requirements on local entities that want to provide their residents with broadband. Local leaders should be aware of the restrictions in their states in order to avoid developing a broadband plan in conflict with existing law.

Laws and regulations also create opportunities for broadband development that guide investment decisions. Communities should map areas that are eligible for public funding and note eligible applicants and restrictions. This can create demand for more-diverse partnerships to tap into funding streams earmarked for the public; non-profit; education; or private sectors. An inventory of legislative and regulatory restrictions can create opportunities for municipal and county officials to modify ordinances or obtain special permission to ease legal restrictions on broadband infrastructure development. For instance, a project might be able to utilize existing utility poles to extend fiber optic cable, but existing regulations make it difficult to lease pole rights. Radio spectrum allocation might prevent utilization of fixed wireless solutions – a county can form partnerships to lease access to available spectrum-space.

A more in-depth discussion of regulatory roadblocks and how to grapple with them is addressed in the section on Reform Legislative and Regulatory Barriers. However, it’s important that any broadband project maps and takes into consideration any legal or regulatory barriers and opportunities to facilitate broadband development.


[1] “Municipal Broadband Is Restricted In 18 States Across The U.S. In 2021,” Broadband Now, May 3, 2021, https://broadbandnow.com/report/municipal-broadband-roadblocks/