Virtual Merit Member Conference 2020 Registration Now Open! Only $15 per Member!

REGISTER NOW
skip to Main Content

MERIT

NEWS
Bringing Broadband to Michigan: An Interview with Charlotte Bewersdorff & Ben Fineman on Propelling Michigan Broadband Connectivity Forward

At least 380,000 homes in rural Michigan do not have access to broadband. Existing depictions of Internet coverage used by the federal government to allocate infrastructure investments are overstated and inaccurate. (Link to data collection page) In response, Merit Network’s Michigan Moonshot team partnered with the Quello Center at Michigan State University and the M-Lab to develop a citizen-science crowdsourcing technique to collect accurate, granular and actionable data. With successful deployments in K-12 and municipal settings, the Michigan Moonshot is now developing a statewide data collection effort. This veritable data of the digital divide in Michigan can be used to develop a more accurate picture of Michigan’s connectivity problems, and can be used to leverage and support grant applications.

All state and federal grant programs rely upon coverage data for funding eligibility. The primary existing source of coverage data, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Form 477, is self-reported by service providers and is aggregated to the census block level. If a single household within a census block has broadband coverage, that entire census block is counted as “served” on this Form 477 map. This demonstrates the need for accurate, granular connectivity data. In Washtenaw County, a strong response from residents depicted many more were unserved or underserved than demonstrated by current Federal Communications Commissions maps. The Michigan Moonshot is now scaling efforts to create an accurate picture of broadband connectivity across the state.

Digital information has reshaped how individuals participate in nearly every dimension of society. Broadband access is a driver of our current socio-economic polarization. It is imperative that communities leverage broadband network access to eliminate the homework gap and improve education, socioeconomic equality, telemedicine, public safety and economic development to maintain and grow the quality of life for their residents.

The homework gap demonstrates the gravity of broadband disparity of students in rural communities. Middle and high school students with high-speed Internet access at home have more digital skills, higher grades, and perform better on standardized tests, such as the SAT.1 The ever increasing use of internet resources, schoolwork, and classes by our educational systems will not wait on all communities to have full access, resulting in moving students who lack the access backward instead of propelling them forward.

Charlotte Bewersdorff, the vice president for community engagement at Merit, and Ben Fineman, the vice chair of Washtenaw County Broadband Task Force, discussed the statewide broadband mission and the drive for a larger data collection pool:

 

Can you describe what led to the first county-wide data collection efforts you made in Michigan? Did your findings come back as predicted?

Ben: In Washtenaw County, we knew anecdotally that we had an issue with broadband access. Through dozens of conversations with community stakeholders, it was apparent that the lack of access to broadband is having significant impacts on economic prosperity and quality of life in our townships. It was the same conversation, people don’t have access to the level of broadband they need to interact at the necessary level in modern society. However, no one knew the real extent of the problem because the only data we had access to was provided by the Federal Communications Commission. It seemed like the data was not accurate and the problem was more widespread than the FCC indicated, but we needed to prove it. We ended up being overwhelmed by the responses we received. Surveys like this traditionally aim for a 10-15% response rate, but we ended up with 23%. There was a lot of interest in the community around this issue. We figured out why when we looked at the responses. The FCC data had previously been telling us that only 2% of households in the 15 townships didn’t have access to broadband. It was actually 64%, according to the survey responses.

Charlotte: Early in 2018 Merit began to prioritize addressing the digital divide for Michigan communities beyond our service to Community Anchor Institutions. We’ve identified the high level barriers to success in three key areas (Data/Mapping, Funding/Policy, Education & Resources). Our Data Collection work began in July 2018 with a joint set of comments to NTIA on Improving the Quality and Accuracy of Broadband Availability Data. In fall of 2019 we progressed with the Citizen Science crowdsourcing methodology in partnership with Quello and our K-12 community. Formal findings have been published and can be found here. Throughout our early work it became apparent that we had developed a unique methodology to develop unbiased, granular and accurate broadband access and adoption data. As our other Moonshot work matured, the need for communities to develop this data at the local level became very clear and expanding this approach municipal and taskforce broadband efforts became the clear and natural next step in this area.

 

The FFC has its own method of gathering information. Has anyone else developed anything similar in the past?

Ben: Several individual townships had taken it upon themselves- Lyndon, Manchester, Dexter, Webster and a few others- to do their own surveys. In 2013 there was another countywide survey that was conducted, however, unlike the Merit survey, it was not conducted using real speed tests in order to get quantitative results. Now, the level of speed and service that people are getting is no longer being self-reported. The combination of physical location and speed test results gives us a very specific and data-driven picture of the level of service around the county, and that’s something that hasn’t been done here or anywhere else in the state.

Charlotte: Given that current FCC data drives investment decisions for federal infrastructure funding, several local efforts to address granularity and accuracy have been executed. Our goal in developing an approach that could scale to a statewide or national level is to provide a standardized model that can generate consistent and longitudinal data. The other benefit to leveraging a crowdsourcing methodology is this data collection serves as a powerful way to engage local communities and allow individual citizens to get involved in solving the digital divide challenge. Given the recent pandemic, people are highly motivated to address these inequities to allow for all communities to achieve equal access to participate in the 21st century economy.

 

What is a challenge you encounter with the citizen-science data gathering approach?

Ben: In order to have an effective study, there needs to be sufficient community buy-in. The only communities that are successful have strong local champions and local support. We don’t have actionable information if there isn’t a certain level of response that provides a critical mass of data. We need that strong local support to take action. We need champions to leverage that data to tackle the broadband gap. They can be part of a board of commissioners, a subcommittee, a task force, a multi-county commission, etc. We need these formalized groups committed to working together to solve the problem.

There is so much demand across the state that we could see a big influx in interest as Merit takes it statewide. Individuals may request help taking the first steps to develop their own local coalitions to move it forward. We need to be ready for that.

Merit has an advantage with the existing constituency of community anchor institutions. K12 schools have admitted that home access to broadband for students is important, but haven’t really been willing to engage on it. In the last few months we faced a one-eighty. Students can’t receive education on campuses and distance learning has taken over. These schools without an online plan are severely disadvantaged and have become more eager to engage in any way they can.

Charlotte: One of our biggest challenges in the development of our approach was developing survey questions and in developing mechanisms to ensure the privacy of student participants with our pilot study. Great care was given from various educators, faculty researchers, administrators, etc… We were able to navigate those early hurdles to achieve success with the pilot, and those challenges led us to approach the Data Collection services we offer today to be done through a standardized survey and collection methodology. While this approach cannot always meet the granular needs of every community, the benefit of consistency and standardization with efficiency and longitudinal data offer a rich data set that can be developed somewhat rapidly in a local ecosystem.

 

Tell us why this is important.

Ben: Broadband internet access heavily impacts economic prosperity, health and public safety, and overall quality of life.

Economic Prosperity – Historically it’s been complicated to draw a direct link between residential broadband access and economic prosperity. Not that it’s impossible, and people have taken a stab in the past. Estimated benefit per household with broadband is anywhere between $1,000-$20,0000 a year. Many functions needed for remote work can’t be completed without broadband. Many companies are looking at not having their employees come back to work because it’s become apparent that it is not a bad thing for productivity. Not paying for office space can be a net benefit. In that scenario, working from home long term without a broadband connection may not be sustainable for some people. In that situation, they will be faced with the challenge of getting a new job or moving- a stark example of why broadband is important. Property values can also be affected. As broadband becomes more and more essential, people may decline closing on a home that doesn’t have broadband access. This strongly diminishes the value of homes, exacerbating the issue for those who need to move because they don’t have access.

Health & Public Safety – Telemedicine is becoming the rule rather than the exception. Many health providers are pushing patients to do virtual visits first instead of coming into the office. These visits are most effective when done via video collaboration. Residents without broadband must come into the office, incurring a greater risk of exposure to illness. Communities without access to real-time data suffer 25% higher rates of injuries and crime.2 For example, the daughter of one of the elected officials of the Washtenaw County Broadband Task Force had a seizure. When the ambulance arrived and paramedics began to diagnose the issue, they pulled out tablets and asked, “Do you have a Wi-Fi network we can connect to?” The community had no Wi-Fi connectivity in their area. The daughter was all right, but seconds saved using optimal technology can make a life or death difference in dealing with public safety.

Quality of Life – When people think about broadband at home they think about things like video streaming, gaming, or other forms of entertainment. During COVID, video chatting has become so important to maintain relationships. Family to family or peer to peer interactions can make anyone feel isolated and disconnected. We are in a time where we face a significant quality of life limitation.

Charlotte: Broadband access and adoption and digital skills affect nearly all major societal drivers that impact the health of communities. Addressing the broadband gap in Michigan is congruent not only with Merit’s mission, but also the missions of many of Merit’s members, including colleges and universities and especially K-12 institutions.

Problems are often simple, even when the solutions are not. To solve the problem, significant capital investments need to be made to build infrastructure: Based on current FCC data, unserved census blocks are ineligible for state and federal funding, thus accurate and granular data is a fundamental step in furthering progress to close the digital divide.

Merit is committed to making Michigan a better place to learn, work and live. Success requires an altruistic commitment to taking the lessons learned from the past and coupling those with innovative ideas from organizations and communities passionate about solving the digital divide in our country. We believe that R&E’s are uniquely positioned to help address broadband challenges and to take a statewide leadership role in this arena.

 

FCC Data vs. Washtenaw Broadband Results

When seeking to address the broadband gap, understanding which households have access to broadband, and at what speeds they are currently connected, is critical. All state and federal grant programs rely upon coverage data for funding eligibility. The primary existing source of coverage data, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Form 477, is self-reported by service providers and aggregated to the census block level. This data is unreliable and lacks the granularity needed for accurate coverage inferences.

Data derived from 15 participating townships show a drastic difference in the levels of connectivity in Washtenaw County. In order to ensure quantitative data, these findings are based on broadband speed results derived from an online speed test. Broadband connectivity data reported by the FCC is shown in comparison to data collected from Washtenaw County in the visualization below.

Screen Shot 2020 06 10 At 9.09.07 AM

The Moonshot initiative expands broadband access to all citizens through policy and funding, data and mapping, education and resources.

These data collection efforts would not have been possible without the support of the Quello Center at Michigan State University and M-Lab, the largest open internet measurement platform in the world.

 

REFERENCES:

1 Hampton, K. N., Fernandez, L., Robinson, C. T., & Bauer, J. M. Broadband and Student Performance Gaps. James H. and Mary B. Quello Center, Michigan State University. https://doi.org/10.25335/BZGY-3V91

2 Michigan Broadband Roadmap. (August, 2018). Retrieved from
https://www.merit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/MCAN-final-report.pdf