Bridging the digital divide with geospatial data


Despite public and private sector efforts to improve telecommunications infrastructure, 19 million Americans still lack fixed broadband connectivity, including a quarter of the rural population. While this is an improvement from just a few years ago, there remains a pervasive digital divide that impinges on the ability of many Americans to simply connect with the digital world around them. Many entities, including the United Nations Human Rights Council, consider high-speed internet access a basic human right. In today’s post-pandemic digital world, high-speed internet access is a necessity, not a luxury.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband, or high-speed Internet, as 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. A download speed of 1 Mbps is required for email or general browsing, and an upload speed of 25 Mbps is required for video streaming. However, it is clear that this level of service and technology is not available to everyone and continues to perpetuate issues of inequality in our country.

Much of the rural and urban population of the United States lives in what is known as a “digital desert,” which is defined as an area without a single Internet Service Provider (ISP). In many other regions, connectivity speeds are often much slower than advertised, overpriced and/or unreliable. Therefore, the public sector must compel telecom operators to provide the minimum threshold of nationwide broadband access and impose healthy competition between two or more ISPs to ensure that connectivity is indeed high-speed and reliable. .

Go granular

The most effective way to efficiently distribute broadband resources is to leverage the enormous value of geospatial data. There must be a way to determine which areas of the country do not have broadband access and to identify where there is only one ISP leading to broadband speeds below the minimum threshold. However, achieving this requires technology equipped to handle large data sets, tools that can sort, query and visualize big data to inform decisions and plans fast enough for telecom operators to solve this problem effectively.

Geospatial data is becoming an essential and proven method to identify areas of digital incompetence. For nearly two centuries, geospatial data has enabled humans to make sense of their world and solve the most daunting problems. In the 1830s, geographers applied spatial data to produce maps that helped them study the epidemiology of cholera. Today, geospatial data helps solve major societal, economic and business problems, such as forecasting customer demand, minimizing the impact of natural disasters and planning public health initiatives. Telecom operators can use geospatial data to optimize infrastructure investments, such as broadband mapping.

Broadband Mapping is the consistent and verifiable mapping of existing broadband infrastructure, performance and value to fill critical gaps in broadband service data. It works by studying billions of data points in minutes to visualize which regions need broadband the most. Accelerated analytics are used to perform broadband mapping to effectively and strategically bridge the digital divide.

Telcos can take advantage of geospatial tools to illustrate the distribution of decision makers’ criteria and effectively map fixed broadband offerings. Granular maps can show the landscape and environment to compare broadband access and terrain features. Similarly, an analyst can map data on household income and ethnicity as well as broadband access to demonstrate discrepancies and advocate for policy change.

Application of big location data

As mentioned above, there is an endless amount of data and sources at your fingertips today. Yet this data is often too large for the typical data scientist to sift through. Advanced analytics software allows you to take any amount of data from multiple sources, whether it’s FCC, school districts, or agricultural data, and create an immersive, real-time visual experience and interactive. Organizations can manipulate the data in several ways and use the results to determine what infrastructure is most needed and where. The right data can identify precisely where broadband infrastructure is needed and ensure those resources are properly implemented to achieve maximum value and impact. For example, if location data suggests that the majority of students in an elementary school do not have broadband access at home, this would indicate that the school building should provide increased public internet services to his students and surrounding households.

Many telcos are already using some form of geospatial analysis to plan 5G antenna placement based on where their customers are and where high data users are. Telecom operators use this mobility data to see where people move during the day and where they use the most data in space and time. Visualization systems are essential for taking geospatial data and sharing it with key stakeholders to formulate practical solutions that will inflict greater policy change to help bridge the digital divide in our country.

The reliability factor

Beyond the basic concept of access, it is also imperative to address the reliability component of broadband. Take California regions, for example. Almost every time there is a fire, cellular networks go down. Increasingly, these failures are seen as a violation of basic human rights. Networks need to be robust and resilient in times of natural disasters and emergencies, especially as more of our lives rely heavily on an internet connection. This is essential for leveraging geolocation data in emergencies, accessing health data and personal and financial information, and connecting to smart home devices to perform basic tasks.

Analysts can apply accelerated analysis and interactive visualization tools in these situations to maintain network reliability on mobile networks proactively and in near real time. Concretely, this is done by allowing the rapid identification of denigrations, anomalies and failures that have an impact on the customer experience. By accessing, visualizing and analyzing massive and complex data in real time and at scale, providers can produce network reliability reports in seconds rather than minutes, enabling engineers to quickly identify anomalies and trends and get networks back up and running in minutes.

There is a massive movement on the social justice front regarding broadband internet access, which is why it has never been more essential for public and private entities to take concrete steps to provide access fair to broadband technology. This has been a concern of the FCC in the past, but it is essential to address it more directly.

Improved geospatial tools combined with advanced analysis and visualization software will allow companies to quickly examine large areas and determine the best course of action based on this data. This is the best way to locate and highlight areas that need high-speed internet access and ultimately help bridge the digital divide.


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