skip to Main Content




LibWifi (1) (1)

Help assess and close the “Homework Gap”

Mlab Logo
Michigan State University 01
Quellologo Nowhitebackground

At least 381,000 households in Michigan do not have access to broadband – primarily because low returns on investment in rural areas are not conducive to for-profit deployment.  Educators have been talking about the “digital divide” for two decades, and while some progress has been made in closing the gap, inequities persist in communities across the country.  In 2009, the Federal Communication Commission’s Broadband Task Force reported that approximately 70% of teachers assign homework requiring access to broadband – what does this mean for the 5 million households with school-age children that do not have high-speed Internet service at home?  A consistent challenge nationally is understanding where and what speeds and attributes broadband is currently available.

Considering that any source of data will have strengths and weaknesses, strategically using multiple sources of data can advance the quality of data to inform decision making.  Specifically, data sources, such as FCC Form 477, can be analyzed in conjunction with new consumer-sourced data to improve the accuracy of broadband availability data and enable us to identify areas where access or speed appears to be under – or – over estimated.  This approach is currently under development here in Michigan through a partnership between the Quello Center at Michigan State University and the Merit Network.

Merit Network, with its deep expertise in advanced networking, and over 700 connections to Michigan’s community anchor, government, and non-profit institutions, is in a unique position to catalyze unserved communities towards achieving broadband access. The Quello Center is affiliated with the Department of Media and Information in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences at Michigan State University.  Researchers at the Center  have a track record of examining broadband access to develop solutions that can help overcome digital divides. They also bring a rigorous understanding of data collection and survey methods to this project.


Broadband is of increasing significance to all consumers, government policy, economic development, scholarly research, community access, and education both inside and outside the classroom. High-speed Internet connections are not equally available to everyone and the data currently used to measure the speed and reach of broadband is less than optimal.  Estimates are particularly problematic in underserved areas such as rural and distressed urban areas of the United States, as illustrated by research on Detroit. Current broadband data collection uses procedures and standards that often result in inaccurate results that make investment, interventions and policy decisions more difficult. Other information relevant for policy makers seeking to address pressing problems like the homework gap, including the number of school aged children in a household, are typically not available or not linked to broadband data.

Challenges that undermine sound decision making and appropriate funding application include: the granularity and level of measurement, the use of data (such as FCC Form 477 filings) not primarily collected to measure broadband availability, and the over-reliance on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as the major source of the data. For example, current measurements are aggregated to the census block level or higher levels, often misrepresenting the availability of broadband. These challenges can be overcome by collecting on-the-ground, consumer-sourced data.

We propose a new approach for data collection that builds on collaborative network organizations (CNOs), often used in citizen science, to uniquely leverage (1) networks of stakeholders (i.e., Merit and other participating Research and Education Networks) to manage the sourcing of data from users across the nation; (2) a partnership with academic researchers that allows for data quality control (identifying and correcting problematic data) and sophisticated analyses using multiple sources and forms of data; (3) data collection through a user-friendly app. This will allow the flexible collection of data from multiple devices, fixed or mobile.  This project will collect both speed test data and user provided household broadband access and availability data.

The Quello Center and Merit Network will be responsible for data management related to this project. Data will be maintained and archived in a secure and password-protected repository at servers at Michigan State University. Data and metadata will be provided in accordance with the Data Documentation Initiative (DDI) standard for the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. All data will be made available in a format that protects anonymity and confidentiality.

Expected Benefits. By integrating large national and regional datasets on broadband infrastructures with data on at-home broadband speeds and household level accessibility, we can advance the ability of policymakers and academics to empirically analyze numerous issues revolving around the Internet to

  • Contribute and influence effective policy to address pressing issues such as the homework gap.
  • Move beyond an overly simplistic urban/rural divide to compare well-to-do and distressed areas of rural and urban areas and other gradual differences across geographies.
  • Catalyzing communities to help drive change, a small community investment in this data collection project will help drive granular level data, an imperative part of the gap in existing data sets available and driving policy/funding acquisition today.
  • Quantifying availability and demand through creation of crowdsourced broadband assessment tools, demand aggregation maps, and community anchor connectivity inventory.  Thus, reduce the financial risk for infrastructure investment decisions with clear indicators of broadband gaps/need.

How will my data be shared?

The Measurement Lab (M-Lab) platform is run by the scientific community. We make all test results publicly available via the website to help promote Internet research. M-Lab’s Network Diagnostic Tool collects a number of measures of different facets of your Internet connection. The information published includes each device’s IP address, but does not include personal identifying information about you as an Internet user.


How will my information be secured?

The Quello Center and Merit Network will be responsible for data management related to this project. Data will be maintained and archived in a secure and password-protected repository at servers at Michigan State University. Data and metadata will be provided in accordance with the Data Documentation Initiative (DDI) standard for the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. All data will be made available in a format that protects anonymity and confidentiality.


How does the Broadband Speed Test work?

The Michigan Broadband Speed Test utilizes the open source test and servers provided by Measurement Lab (M-Lab), a consortium of public interest groups, academic institutions and industry partners, providing an open platform dedicated to Internet performance measurement. When you start a test, your browser opens a connection to the closest M-Lab server. It then exchanges with the server a synthetic stream of data, generated solely for the purpose of measuring your connection at that time. During the test, the server collects around 100 low-level metrics. When the test is completed, the user is shown three of the most accessible measurements: download speed, upload speed, and minimum round trip time.


Why does this test show different results than other tests like

Different network measurement tests sometimes show variance in results due to factors such as the methodology of the test. Both and M-Lab’s tests are valid measurements but have different methods and instrumentation which account for the difference in measurements.

In both M-Lab’s NDT test and Ookla’s test, there is a client and a server component. The client is the test running in your browser in both cases. Ookla’s servers are always within the ISP’s last mile network, while M-Lab’s servers are always in transit data centers, outside of any ISP last mile network. The FCC (and their measurement consultant SamKnows) refer to this difference as “on-net” and “off-net” measurement. You can learn more about this difference at this link:

The test is an on-net measurement of your connection’s performance to the edge of your ISP’s network, and M-Lab’s test is an off-net measurement of your connection’s performance through your ISP’s network to one of M-Lab’s servers in a Seattle Internet exchange point. M-Lab’s methodology is based on the rationale that consumers request content from the Internet which could be anywhere in the world, most of which is outside their ISP’s network. By tracing the performance over the full path of the your broadband connection to the global Internet, M-Lab measures the performance of your connection across interconnected networks, which is closer to the way you access the Internet everyday.


What data does this test collect, and how will it be used?

Before you take the test, you will be asked for your location and some basic information about your connection. You can also share what speeds are advertised under your current contract. This data will be stored in a private database, combined with other results, and published to the map and to in anonymized form.

This test does not collect information about your other Internet traffic, such as your emails, web searches, etc., or any personally identifiable information. The data it sends across your network is synthetic – meaning it does not come from your device or other applications you are operating – and will be used for measurement only. The speed test data is submitted to M-Lab in aggregated form to assure that the anonymity of users is protected.


What do these results mean?

Your speed test results show the actual upload and download speeds you are experiencing at the time you take the test. Results can vary due to the device you are using, your operating system, the browser you use, the time of day you take the test, whether you are using WiFi or a wired connection, the number of devices connected to the same signal at once, and many other factors. You can take this test as many times as you like, from as many devices and locations as you like. If the speeds you are receiving do not match up to your expectations, you have a number of options.

The Michigan Moonshot has identified pilot communities to partner with for the deployment and evaluation of community network processes, toolkits, vendor marketplaces and more.


We are eager to begin leveraging citizen scientists in the k12 community to collect data on the speed and quality of broadband internet connections to better understand how gaps in internet access affect the ability of students to succeed in school (often referred to as the “homework gap”). The Michigan Moonshot is currently pursuing funding for a larger rollout that could include other community stakeholder groups provided this proof of concept goes well.