The FAST PIIPS Connectivity Model, Part 6: Research to Support Success

In announcing Microsoft’s Airband project, company president Brad Smith cited “a need for improved data collection regarding rural broadband coverage,” adding that:

“The FCC can help by accelerating its work to collect and report publicly on the state of broadband coverage in rural counties, thereby aiding policy makers and the private sector in making targeted investments.”

While I wholeheartedly agree with Smith, I’d expand a bit on his recommendation.  In addition to an FCC effort to accelerate its collection and public reporting of broadband availability data, I’d also recommend an expanded collaborative effort that might involve not only the FCC, but also other governmental and private sector entities.  The central goal of this effort would be to develop a multi-layered and user-friendly geographic database that contains not only the FCC’s existing data on broadband coverage (and lack thereof) referenced by Smith, but also additional GIS layers related to the availability of resources with potential to address that need.  These might include:

  • the amount of available TVWS spectrum;
  • the amount of unlicensed EBS spectrum;
  • service areas not only of wired and wireless broadband providers but also of rural electric cooperatives and municipal utilities;
  • locations of community anchor institutions (CAIs), including universities, libraries, K-12 schools and district offices, government facilities and, where possible, the status (i.e., technology type and speed) of their connectivity;
  • location of fiber backhaul lines and points of presence, including those connecting CAIs;
  • vertical assets suitable for antenna siting;
  • population demographics and density data, and business/economic data available from the Census Bureau and other government agencies.

Given that most of this data is already compiled by one or more entities, the incremental tasks involved relate more to data integration than to data collection.  Though the former is not a trivial task area, it seems manageable in relation to its potential value.

This collaborative research project could also include an updated version of the kind of detailed comparative network cost analysis done in 2009-2010 by CostQuest Associates as part of the National Broadband Plan exercise.  This analysis would not only update costs for the network options considered in the original analysis; it would also consider cost data for emerging network strategies such as the “fiber + wireless” solutions discussed here and in my recent Wireless Innovation for Last Mile report.  In addition to drawing on cost data associated with these projects, it could also integrate other data, including from the most recent cost studies conducted by the FCC, consultants like CostQuest, and the TVWS-focused study recently conducted by Microsoft and Boston Consulting Group and cited in Microsoft’s Airband announcement.

As I see it, this integrated set of data and analysis tools would help policymakers, network investors and other stakeholders develop more effective strategies at local, state and national levels by enhancing their understanding of: 1) the extent to which fiber, spectrum and other network resources are available to help bridge the nation’s remaining access gaps; 2) what types of public benefit-focused or shareholder-focused entities might be available to employ these resources to support the application of FAST PIIPS-friendly or other network models and; 3) the relative costs associated with applying these models in specific local communities.

While the FCC could take the lead in making this project happen, an alternative approach would be for one or more states to take the lead, or for one or multiple private companies or foundations to do so.

Personally, I’d love to see Michigan–where I’ve been working on broadband-related policy issues since returning here a few years ago–be involved in such a project.  As noted in earlier posts, the state has already emerged as a leader in deploying FAST PIIPS-friendly initiatives employing both EBS and TVWS spectrum.  Both of these Michigan initiatives involve active support from Merit Network, one of the nation’s oldest and largest Research and Education Networks (RENs), while the TVWS projects also involve Microsoft, the Library of Michigan (part of the state’s Department of Education), the Gigabit Libraries Network, and three of the state’s local and regional library systems.

The type of research and analysis capability I have in mind could also benefit from the expertise and years of Michigan-focused work of Connect Michigan and its parent Connected Nation.  In addition to many years of broadband-related GIS work in Michigan and other states, Connected Nation also operates other research-intensive programs, including a Connected Community Engagement Program that helps local stakeholders develop, execute and monitor broadband-related Community Technology Action Plans. Additional expertise to support this kind of collaborative research initiative could come from Michigan’s universities. [Full disclosure: I worked with Michigan State University’s Quello Center from 2014 to 2016 on broadband related issues and have talked to Connect Michigan about helping them put together a series of case studies focused on innovative approaches to expanding broadband connectivity and digital empowerment.]

Below are links to the other posts in this series. Feedback from readers, especially constructive criticism, is welcome.

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