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If you want to know exactly how fast the internet connection is in your part of rural America, good luck.
The National Broadband Map has been decommissioned. The latest report from the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has serious flaws, researchers say. And private efforts to measure access speeds tend to underrepresent rural areas and cause confusion about what speed is available and what consumers actually pay for.
A collaboration of three national rural nonprofits hopes to create a more accurate picture for researchers and advocates to use to see how their communities measure up.
The TestIT smartphone app invites rural residents to participate in the effort, identifying current broadband speed and service gaps in underserved communities.
“We came together to sit down and ask how could we paint an accurate picture of what broadband access is really like in rural communities throughout the country,” said Nathan Ohle, executive director of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP).
“We created the TestIT app, which is open-source and available to everyone in any community across the country to use,” Ohle said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “It’s free to download. It’s very simple to use. You open the app, it tests your download or upload speed wherever you are. It then populates that information in a larger database.”
The app was developed with the Measurement Lab, a private initiative that includes industry leaders like Google, nonprofits like New America’s Open Technology Project, and researchers like Princeton University’s Planet Lab. The data through the tests collected will be shared publicly, Ohle said.
“What we’ve seen historically is that the maps the FCC uses to showcase broadband availability across the country don’t necessarily line up with what we see on the ground in rural communities,” Ohle said.
For example, the most recent federal data on broadband speeds is self-reported by internet service providers. It’s based on the speeds providers make “available,” not the speeds consumers subscribe to. Also, the report does not go down to the level of individual addresses but groups addresses together under the fastest reported speed available to any one of them.
Roberto Gallardo, assistant director of Purdue University Center for Regional Development, said getting better data is important for efforts to connect rural America. While he said that crowdsourcing internet speed reports can be difficult, the partnership of three national organizations could help improve results.
Brian Whitacre, a rural economist at Oklahoma State University, said he was glad to see any project that tries to paint a better picture of rural broadband access. He said the speed gap between rural and urban was not as pronounced for cellular networks as it is for fixed terrestrial access such as cable, DSL, or fiber. So making sure there are enough fixed access data points will be important, he said.
Ohle said the app will measure and report the speed of whatever network the smart phone is connected to – fixed or cellular. The app will also track areas with no access. If the app can’t connect to the internet at the time of the test, it uploads the report the next time it’s connected.
The Rural Community Action Partnership, NACo and Rural LISC hope the mobile app will let rural people accurately identify areas with low or no internet connectivity and share that information to “push for change,” the groups announced in a joint press release. “Armed with that data, the organizations will advocate for adequate funding for broadband infrastructure across the country,” the press release said.
Although estimates about the availability of broadband in rural America vary, there’s overwhelming consensus that rural speeds lag urban areas.
The partnership’s goal is to help define that gap, Ohle said. “We can then share with the FCC, NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration), federal policymakers and state policymakers so that not only do they have a better, more accurate understanding of what broadband availability looks like in rural communities, but also the policy and funding that goes to broadband projects is more accurately representative of what is happening on the ground.” Ohle said.
RCAP works primarily in small rural communities of 10,000 residents or fewer. The organization’s rural economic development and infrastructure work has shown that rural areas miss out on opportunities when they don’t have adequate internet access.
“This leads to complications in communicating effectively with water and wastewater systems, which is a lot of the work we do,” Ohle said. “But the lack of access really touches the entire community. If you’re looking for a job, if you’re business is in the community, if you are a farmer looking to download crop yield data, all of those things have an impact on your daily life if you don’t have access to high speed broadband.”
No personal information is shared, according to Ohle. The app checks users’ geo-location, as well as download and upload speeds.
(Author’s note: Bryce Oates tested the app on his “not-very-new iPhone.” The test took about 30 seconds to run from his home office in Western Washington state. The download speed was 16.34 mbps and upload speed is 1.41 mbps. Both speeds are slower than the national average and don’t meet the FCC’s definition of broadband, which is 25 mbps download and 3 mpbs upload.)
“What we’re encouraging folks to do is to use the app regularly. Use it home, at work, at the grocery store,” Ohle said. “What we find is that the more data points available, the better information we have to define localized broadband speeds.”
The description of the app reads:
“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. 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.”