When the world shut down at the start of the pandemic, how did you stay in touch with family and friends? Do your work? Go to school? Get medical attention? Most likely it was online.
Now imagine trying to do all of these things without reliable home internet service.
Virginia Tech’s Geospatial Information Technology Center (CGIT), together with the Broadband Office of the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, developed and launched an enhanced mapping tool to bridge the digital divide in the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth Connection The mapping tool, which provides more timely and accurate information about where high-speed Internet service is available in Virginia, will allow state officials as well as consumers to determine where reliable high-speed access exists – and where it is lacking.
Additionally, the new tool will provide local governments with the key data needed to apply for funds, deploy broadband infrastructure and reach the more than 50,000 underserved homes, businesses and anchor community institutions that have no solution. funded for connectivity.
CGIT, which is hosted in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, developed the first and subsequent iterations of a Virginia broadband coverage map for the Office of Broadband. The third version of the map, released in 2017, was based on data collected by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
In March 2020, federal legislation was enacted that paved the way for new mapping efforts, establishing a framework for mapping address-level data that would achieve a greater level of detail regarding the availability of broadband. The resulting new federal maps are expected to be released in late 2022 or early 2023.
Recognizing the need for more detail in broadband mapping, the Virginia General Assembly and previous administration in April 2021 approved funding for Virginia to develop its own map, modeled on federal standards but available months later. before the federal maps.
After the General Assembly passed a budget that allowed the state’s data collection efforts to begin, Tamarah Holmes, Director of the Office of Broadband, spoke with CGIT Director Brandon Herndon, to discuss how they could collaborate on the state’s new responsibility to update the map. .
“It was a perfect match for the state and Virginia Tech to work together,” she said. “They [CGIT] had built and maintained the original map and had lots of great ideas on how to improve it. When we received the funding to build a brand new board, we decided to continue this partnership with Virginia Tech because of the expertise and excellent research they do.
CGIT began work on the project in July 2021, creating guidelines for data submission and creating a secure portal for broadband service providers in Virginia to submit data. The center then started working on the new broadband availability map, which was made public in April.
The new map provides coverage information for 92%, or 3.5 million out of 3.8 million addresses in Virginia. About 84% of broadband service providers (51 out of 57) submitted data. Data will continue to be collected annually, providing a more accurate picture of coverage and eliminating the 14-18 month lag between federal collection and state access that previously existed.
“The bottom line for many Virginians is that they will have access to better, more timely data,” Herndon said. “And starting next year, Virginians will be able to participate in a challenge process on where providers say broadband coverage is available. Citizens will be able to crowdsource where coverage exists and not, regardless of what broadband providers claim.
When the data was collected at the federal level, there was no process for an individual to challenge the FCC cards.
“With our map, Virginia Tech provides a portal and people can challenge the service area,” Holmes said. “If there’s a cluster of complaints, we can go back to the provider and tell them they’re overestimating their coverage on an annual basis.”
Another advantage of the new mapping tool is that it collects data for the state at the address level rather than by census block, the method previously used by the federal government. The result is greater accuracy and precision for new high-resolution maps.
Street address level data collection has never been done in the Commonwealth. In the past, broadband service providers could tell the FCC that an area was covered if the location could be served within a reasonable time.
“So if there’s a cable next to a house and the provider says they can run a line to that house, that place is considered serviced,” Herndon said. “This leads to a gross overstatement of where coverage is claimed.”
“In the past, the state had other methods to determine where broadband coverage existed because providers gave information to the FCC and did not have to share coverage information directly with the state,” said said Lonnie Hamilton ’20, broadband planner with the Department of Housing. and Community Development and CNRE graduate Department of Geography as good as College of Architecture and Urban Studies.
The original map, which relied on federal data reporting, inflated coverage. “The FCC has said that if you serve one address, the entire census block is considered served. In rural areas, census blocks can have more than 500 houses, which has led to a vast overestimation of actual coverage,” Hamilton said.
According to Hamilton, the granularity and detail in CGIT’s new map provides a clearer picture of broadband coverage in Virginia. “For consumers, this will allow anyone to go to the map, plug in their address, and find out what service is available for the community and in a specific area of the community.”
Herndon said the new mapping tool could potentially attract funding and economic development for underserved areas through the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative. CGIT’s improved map will help cities and counties apply for additional funding to bring and expand broadband coverage.
“Our goal is to help bridge the digital divide,” he said. “One of the great delineators is this tool. Having a high-resolution map that shows where coverage is and where it isn’t gives local jurisdictions data to prove their need. »