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 on his recommendation along the following lines:

Matching unmet needs with available resources & economically sound strategies 

In addition to an FCC effort to accelerate its collection and public reporting of broadband availability data, I’d also recommend an expanded data integration and analysis effort that might involve not only the FCC, but also other governmental and private sector entities.  The goal of this effort would be to develop a user-friendly and expandable data and analysis platform that contains not only the FCC’s existing data on broadband coverage (or lack thereof) referenced by Smith, but also additional components that add to the platform’s value in developing broadband policies and action plans at local, state and national levels.  Among the additional GIS layers this platform could include are:

  • 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., speed and cost) of their connectivity (for an example of the latter, see this interactive map from Education Superhighway.)
  • location of fiber backhaul lines and points of presence, including those connecting CAIs;
  • vertical assets suitable for antenna siting;
  • topographical features (e.g., contours, vegetation) impacting wireless coverage;
  • FCC and Census data on residential broadband adoption levels (as distinguished from measures of broadband availability)
  • 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.

Making the data platform user-friendly and expandable

To extract the most value from this integrated dataset, it should be readily accessible and usable by a range of stakeholders.  With this need in mind, and citing the value of data access platforms like Waze and Data.govBlair Levin and Larry Downes suggest in a Washington Post op-ed piece that the FCC “create an interactive broadband dashboard…designed so that anyone can build new tools to analyze particular state and local infrastructure.” They recommend that this dashboard be “continually updated with the most current information on broadband technologies, speeds, performance and coverage…[and] include new data sources and reporting methods.”

In keeping with this expansive vision of a toolkit to support the research and planning needs of a range of broadband stakeholders, I’d recommend that it also include a regularly updated version of the kind of detailed comparative network cost modeling done in 2009-2010 by CostQuest Associates as part of the National Broadband Plan exercise.  This cost-modeling component would not only update costs for the network options considered in the original National Broadband Plan analysis, it would also consider cost data for emerging network strategies, including the “fiber + wireless” solutions discussed in this series of FAST PIIPS blog posts and in my recent Wireless Innovation for Last Mile report.  In addition to drawing on cost data available from these innovative projects, it would also integrate updated cost data available from public and private sector sources, including 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.

For the comparative cost modeling component to be most valuable, the data platform should be designed so that the broadband dashboard enables stakeholders to compare the costs of alternative network models for the particular geographic areas of interest to them, perhaps with the ability to adjust some of the model’s parameters to better reflect the real-world situations these stakeholders face.

Also helpful for policymakers and planners would be data on broadband pricing.  Though this data is inherently “messy” due to heavy use of and frequent changes in multiservice bundles and promotional offers, it is tracked by commercial firms.  For example, pricing data compiled by Telogical was used in preparing the National Broadband Plan, which recommended that:

“The FCC and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) should collect more detailed and accurate data on actual availability, penetration, prices, churn and bundles offered by broadband service…and should publish analyses of these data.”

Telogical broadband pricing data has also been used in studies conducted by consulting firms and academics.  In one such academic paper, entitled Measuring Broadband Internet Prices, authors Gabor Molnar, Scott Savage and Douglas Sicker, noting the limitations on available broadband pricing data and its analytical utility, recommended an “industry-wide collaborative effort” to develop an “ongoing, rigorous, nationwide study” of U.S. broadband pricing trends.

As I see it, the integrated set of data and analysis tools discussed above would help policymakers, network investors and other stakeholders develop more effective strategies and action plans at local, state and national levels.  It would do so by enhancing their understanding of:

  • remaining gaps in broadband availability, performance, affordability and adoption;
  • the extent to which fiber, spectrum and other network resources are available to help bridge these gaps;
  • 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;
  • the relative costs associated with applying different network strategies in specific local communities.

Learning from Airband and other pioneering projects

In addition to the kind of GIS and financial model-intensive research described above, I’d also recommend an effort to update, expand and deepen the kind of case study research we did for the Wireless Innovation for Last Mile Access (WILMA) project.

Because our WILMA research included several groundbreaking network projects still in early stages of development, we were very limited in our ability to investigate the challenges these projects faced, how they responded to these challenges, the lessons they learned, and the impacts they achieved.  Given their significance as pioneers in the “last mile innovation” space, I strongly believe they deserve in-depth follow-up study.

Another valuable and timely direction for expanding the body of case study work in this space would be to examine the development of the Airband projects from a range of perspectives, including technology, business models, intra-and inter-organizational structure and dynamics, and economic and social impacts and outcomes.  With projects in twelve states, the Airband initiative–especially if carefully and impartially studied–can generate an abundance of lessons regarding strategies that can help address the nation’s remaining rural broadband availability gaps, including the role of TVWS in doing so.

How to proceed, and who will take the lead?

Given its resources and role, an important source of data and potential lead player in developing such a data platform is the FCC, perhaps working with other federal agencies that have datasets and areas of responsibility related to the availability and use of broadband connectivity (e.g., economic and job growth, effectiveness of education and healthcare sectors, etc.).  A variation on this would be for one or more states, private companies and/or foundations to take the lead, hopefully with active cooperation from federal agencies.

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 uses surveys and other tools to help 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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