Dissatisfied with the accuracy, timeliness and transparency of the Federal Communications Commission's map of broadband availability in the US, a non-profit organization of county governments today launched a mobile app to crowdsource this data from around the country.
The National Association of Counties (NACo) teamed up with the Local Initiatives Support Corp. and Rural Community Assistance Partnership to develop TestIT, a mobile app that allows users to test and share their broadband speeds simply by pushing a button. It is available for both iOS and Android devices.
This is a screenshot from BBWN Editor Alison Diana's cell phone, sitting at her desk in her office.
"This app is an exciting opportunity for us to help provide insight into true accessibility of broadband in rural communities. Partnering with NACo and LISC allows us to build a network of users from across the country, as well as showing the critical importance of building partnerships to affect change at the local level," said RCAP Executive Director Nathan Ohle in a statement. "This initiative will shed light on communities that are often overlooked or underserved and identify opportunities to better leverage critical federal resources."
When users share their position (with permission), the results show whether they're above or below the national speed average and the FCC's definition of broadband. The app will help advance one of the organization's missions, to identify those areas with low or no connectivity so they can receive adequate funding for broadband infrastructure, according to NACo.
"Access to affordable high-speed Internet is essential for rural communities to compete in today's economy. Accurate connectivity data is the foundation for investments in broadband infrastructure," reads the blurb on TestIT's iTunes entry. "Unfortunately, connectivity data provided by Internet service providers is often inaccurate and inflated -- leaving many rural communities overlooked and disconnected. This app will help identify areas with low or no connectivity to help ensure adequate funding for broadband infrastructure is provided across the country."
During a meeting on Saturday, members of NACo's Telecommunications and Technology Policy Steering Committee shared the frequent reality of poor or zero connectivity for Internet or cellular service in many rural regions despite billions and billions of dollars in taxpayer investment to tier one through three operators and regional service providers. FCC data generally describes coverage in these under- or unserved areas as far rosier than it actually is, according to NACo.
Raeanne Danielowski, Commissioner of Sherburne County, Minn., said her county's provider receives federal funding for landline services but will not upgrade or allow competitors to use its poles, ducts or other infrastructure to lay fiber. Operators within Sherburn County (which ironically has a town called Cable) include Charter, Frontier and Verizon, along with local providers such as TDS Telecom, Fibernet Monticello and The Connected Home.
"We are falling way behind," said Danielowski. "It's a conversation we've been having for a long time. Kids are sitting outside of restaurants at 10 o'clock at night looking to get broadband."
In West Virginia, 74% of rural residents do not have broadband access, according to the office of Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va). And it's often easier for Allan Angel, Commissioner of Kent County, Delaware, to speak to family members from Hawaii or California than make a local call, given the poor cell-phone service in his state.
It's not that rural residents are complacent or ignorant, stressed Henrico County, Va. Commissioner Patricia O'Bannon. Constituents are well aware of what they're missing and how important high-speed broadband and reliable mobile services are for emergency respondents, education, jobs, commerce and business, as well as entertainment and other diversions, she said.
"Thousands have made complaints to the FCC, with no action [and] they blame me," O'Bannon noted.
NACo did not want to take the FCC's approach and rely on operators to inform the agency about broadband availability using a formula that's, at best, misleading because it uses census blocks rather than the actual number of buildings connected. And only eight weeks after stating it would seek more granular data for its broadband-coverage map, the FCC decommissioned the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA) National Broadband Map and related APIs.
— Alison Diana, Editor, Broadband World News. Follow us on Twitter or @alisoncdiana.