July 30, 2020

Location-based Maps for Rural High-Speed Broadband Deployment

The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch

Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of the Broadband Bunch. I’m Craig Corbin. The need for broadband connectivity has never been greater. Our guest today leads a statewide organization, which, in the two short years of its existence, has made a tremendous impact in providing planning, deployment and incentives for broadband services, along with other emerging communications technologies.

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Craig Corbin:

Since August of 2018, Deana Perry has served as Executive Director of the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative, created by Georgia Senate Bill 402, the Achieving Connectivity Everywhere Act (ACE).  Their mission is one of providing unserved areas of the state minimum speeds of 25 megabits per second download and three megabits per second upload. Deana previously worked with the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission to develop broadband strategy by identifying existing assets and funding opportunities, along with drafting policy revisions. Deana also serve as Program Manager for the Appalachian Valley Fiber Network on their $26 million broadband stimulus grant funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

About the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative

Craig Corbin:

For those who aren’t familiar with the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative, would you give us an overview of your organization.

Deana Perry:

In 2018, the Georgia General Assembly passed the Achieving Connectivity Everywhere Act, launching the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative. This initiative is a multi-agency collaboration consisting of the Department of Community Affairs, Economic Development, Department of Transportation, as well as the Georgia Technology Authority and other state agencies.

Deana Perry:

The initiative calls for the promotion and deployment of broadband services throughout the state to unserved areas with a minimum of a 25 Mbps download and a 3 Mbps upload speed. This is to increase economic education and social opportunities for Georgia citizens and businesses.

Deana Perry:

The Department of Community Affairs is the state agency that was tasked with developing the Georgia Broadband Availability Map.  Our ongoing partnership with the Georgia Technology Authority and Carl Vinson Institute of the University of Georgia allows us the opportunity to illustrate statewide challenges to internet access and to provide an effective tool for data-driven decisions.

The Georgia Broadband Availability Map – Actual Location Data not Census Data

Deana Perry:

The Georgia Broadband Availability Map is the first of its kind. It reflects more than 5 million locations in all 159 Georgia counties. In the span of 18 months, data was collected by overlaying every home and business with broadband provider service availability for those locations. This provided an in depth view of served and unserved Georgians. Previously, the FCC’s map, with its methodology of a one location serve equaling all locations served in a single census block, understates the locations that are unserved by high speed internet service. The state’s new map is based on a location-specific data and is a more accurate reflection of what Georgia households actually have for high speed internet. The new map will bring more transparency to the internet marketplace and clarify which houses do not have access to high speed internet. We had a total of 43 out of the 44 retail broadband service providers in Georgia provide data in this effort.

Craig Corbin:

It’s extremely important to note that the new map is based on location-specific data, as opposed to the census block method, which has been used by the FCC and which, as long as one customer in a census block is served, that is considered to be service for the entire block. The data on the GBA map show that there are more than half a million locations around the State of Georgia that are completely unserved. That’s hard to comprehend when you compare with what the FCC data indicates.  What was the first thing that came to mind when you began to see the reality of the results come into being?

Deana Perry:

It did prove and validate what we suspected and what we had been hearing from citizens for a number of years that citizens had been reaching out to their local and state elected officials for a number of years. So this is something that our state leaders have been looking into for some time. Once we were able to complete our map, it did indicate and validate what we had been hearing, but the methodologies were different. You would expect when you go to the location level, rather than just a census block level, that you would find more unserved locations. And in fact, we did.

Deana Perry:

We found that 507,041 households and businesses do not have access across the state. We found unserved locations in every county, whether a metro county or a rural county. What we did determine is that 70% of those unserved locations are in rural areas of Georgia.

Craig Corbin:

Knowing how great the need is for connectivity today given the fact that COVID-19 has placed an emphasis on distance learning, telehealth and remote working, how important is having this accurate data in trying to bring broadband to the unserved areas of the state?

Deana Perry:

There are many advantages of having a high speed internet connection, and never has there been a time that has illustrated this than during the current COVID-19 pandemic. All across Georgia, citizens have been forced to work from home and remote learning in order to protect their health, as well as the safety of others. Those that have internet access and the opportunity to telework transitioned seamlessly, but those without internet connectivity struggle. Those with underlying health issues who were connected could continue healthcare management from home through telehealth, but those who were not connected put themself at risk by either not maintaining healthcare management under a doctor’s care or risk of exposure by visiting a healthcare facility.

Lack of Broadband Connectivity Greatest Challenge for Remote Learning

Deana Perry:

The lack of connectivity was the greatest challenge educators have faced in transitioning to remote learning. Since the pandemic has hit, we have focused on supporting DOE and closing the connectivity and device gap. We have worked with them to develop guidance for utilizing the CARES funds for remote learning. The CARES fund is the funding that was made available through federal programs passed down through the Department of Education. We have leveraged the data collected from our mapping in an effort to assist the Department of Education in developing a dashboard that identifies students in households without internet access. This will enable informed decisions as to where to broadband deployment solutions for continuity of learning can happen.

Deana Perry:

This is not a new problem, but one that existed long before the pandemic. Children need reliable internet and device access to get 21st century education. This need will still exist even when the immediate effects of the virus have passed. Robust broadband services provide the opportunity for all students to access the same materials and instructions digitally, no matter where they live or what their circumstances are.

Optimized Broadband Access Deployment with Location Speed Testing

Deana Perry:

In addition to identifying locations which lack access, we also have recently launched a statewide speed test by Ookla. It’s a pilot project and the purpose of it is to enable local leaders to effectively assess distant learning on a long-term basis. Our team is assisting the Department of Education and school districts to deploy wireless solutions for student connectivity in all 216 districts. Working in partnership with the Department of Education, a team of wireless providers and our broadband map, the Ookla speed test will be used to provide detailed guidance to school districts who will evaluate the best locations for wireless solutions and deployments for continuity of instruction for students.

Craig Corbin:

We are about to start a new school year and there are many school systems that will be beginning the fall semester with remote learning. That really brings to the forefront the importance of having the wireless solutions for student connectivity everywhere.  Talk a little bit about how your organization is going to utilize the results of this pilot project to make more connectivity available across the state.

Deana Perry:

As I mentioned, through our mapping effort, we have been able to assist the Department of Education and the school districts in identifying where students lack access and connectivity to the internet. Those locations are where those wireless solutions will be best optimized. In order to guarantee the performance of those wireless solutions, we also want to arm the school districts with the additional information of where’s the strongest signal strength to maximize those opportunities.

Deana Perry:

Some of the wireless solutions would be the deployment of buses or vehicles with a transmitter that would allow students to access the internet through these transmitters. The idea is to deploy these transmitters to areas where wireless solutions can optimize on the strongest signal strength in that particular county or school district.

Deana Perry:

It’s a real simple process. There is a Ookla app that you can download on whatever device that you may use. It may be your laptop; it may be a tablet or perhaps a cell phone. You just push a button to do the test. The test results will automatically be collected by Ookla. The more data we have on the speed test results across the state, the better we can evaluate signal performance in different geographic regions of the state.  The only information that Ookla is collecting is the test results. There’s no personal information collected. It’s just simply the speed test results.

Craig Corbin:

Before we move on, away from the broadband availability map, Georgia has been sort of a pioneer with this initiative. What kind of feedback have you gotten from peers across the country, once they’ve seen the data that you’ve come up with on this availability map?

Deana Perry:

We’ve had several states reach out to us, their broadband programs, looking to see and find and share best practices with how we have approached the development of a location level map. You know, this is a large, “heavy lift” project to take on.  They want to know how did we do it and what resources did we leverage? We have been sharing our information with interested states across the nation on how we went about creating our availability map based on location level data.

Rural Broadband Funding Opportunities

Craig Corbin:

You ended up having assistance from 43 of the 44 retail broadband service providers in drawing the map which will be used going forward to assist potential providers or others that want to learn how to bring broadband to their area through available funding opportunities. The CARES Act ReConnect funding from the USDA is providing 12.5 million dollars to rural counties here in Georgia. Tell us a little bit about that.

Deana Perry:

I’m glad you mentioned the participation we had of 43 out of 44 retail broadband service providers. Their partnership, participation and collaboration with us has been critical. Without that, it would have been impossible to have created our map. We had a very strong mapping team with the leadership of Georgia Technology Authority and the Carl Vinson Institute of the University of Georgia, as well as our providers.

Deana Perry:

We believe that public private partnerships are the key factor in solving the connectivity issues. The fundamental component to expanding broadband access relies on additional funding, as well as these public private partnerships. In June alone, we had $21.5 million in funds that were invested statewide in rural broadband.  Comcast announced a $9 million investment in expansion for rural communities in Haralson County. In addition to that, there was an announcement from the USDA ReConnect program, where they awarded DoveTel Communications, in partnership with Carroll EMC, $12.5 million to invest in Heard, Troup and Carroll Counties.

Deana Perry:

We’ve had other ReConnect announcements and other private investments. We believe the information gained from our mapping will be beneficial to local governments in their planning strategies. We believe it’ll be important to citizens to understand how indicative the map is in representing whether they have service or not. And then certainly, it can be used by private investment to leverage their existing footprint in edging out their networks and their strategy plans.

Rural Internet Speed Testing

Craig Corbin:

Baker, Clayton, Doherty and Gordon counties are on the list for the Ookla speed test pilot project to be able to assist the education leaders to figure out options for distance learning, both short term and long term. What are your thoughts on what can potentially come of having those counties selected for the additional assessment?

Deana Perry:

Those counties were selected for the pilot project because they have the largest number of unserved citizens and they are a geographic representation of different parts of the state. This test will be conducted statewide so the information gained from the pilot will help us when we scale up to a statewide effort.

Deana Perry:

As I mentioned, they have some of the larger numbers of unserved students, so the benefit is that the DOE and the school districts can better assess, direct and deploy wireless solutions in those counties.

Rural Broadband Access Advocate – It’s Personal

Craig Corbin:

You’ve spent many years working in the field of broadband. You’ve worked with the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission, and before that, with the Appalachian Valley Fiber Network, what’s it been like to you personally to be able to assist in providing connectivity for people all over the state of Georgia?

Deana Perry:

It’s been very important to me personally because I’m from Chautauqua County in rural Georgia. I live in Trion, Georgia, and internet access has been a challenge for me. I have a son who is a freshman in high school, and he too has needed reliable, high-speed broadband access to get all the resources and educational tools that are available for homework assignments, let alone instructional classroom tools.

Deana Perry:

The ability to see the disparity between students that have access to those educational resources and those who don’t, and to be able to close that gap so that all students have the same advantages.  To help all students to have the same opportunity to access all the educational resources available online, whether it be test prep, whether it be a tutorial, or lessons like those on Khan Academy.

Deana Perry:

Certainly teleworking is also important to me. While I do work from home from time to time and also the Atlanta office, it’s very important to me to be able to telework.

Deana Perry:

Telemedicine / telehealth is really important too. We’re a county that doesn’t have a hospital, so we go to neighboring counties for hospital care. The connectivity that was afforded some of our healthcare facilities through the Appalachian Valley Fiber Network build-out has allowed us to be able to utilize our urgent care in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to before. Prior to the buildout, we would have had to drive to a hospital that is 45 minutes away.  It has been very personal to me.  I can relate to those who share the same experiences that I have.

The Future of the Georgia Broadband Initiative

Craig Corbin:

That goes back to remarks that you made when you were first announced as Executive Director of the organization, where you said, “There are 473 rural towns in Georgia whose residents are at risk of missing the economic benefits of a high speed internet connection. The internet is a fundamental component of the American economy, creating new ways to educate, employ, bring services to and entertain every person. Broadband is essential for unlocking the internet’s benefits, and access to broadband will define the future for our rural areas.” What do you see as the future of the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative in making that become reality?

Deana Perry:

We have a unique tool in our map and we have continued to develop other tools that can support local governments in understanding how they might plan for investment and build out to those areas. We certainly want to be a partner to our internet service providers. As I said earlier, we think they are key. We want to be able to reduce the cost, reduce the risk of sustainability, and then maximize investment. We think that the internet service providers who currently have footprints are the best way to do that. So as we began and continue to build our tools to support investment, whether it be at the local level or private, then I think we’ll continue to see build-out.

Deana Perry:

One of the things that we have heard from service providers is that during the pandemic, they have seen that 20 to 30% increase in subscribers to the internet. So adoption is also key. Adoption and the ability for users to subscribe to the services that are made available is also key to the investment and to continuing building out these networks.

“Broadband Ready” Counties & Cities

Craig Corbin:

Part of the equation for success is the receptivity of the communities that you’re trying to serve. A number of Georgia communities have already demonstrated their willingness and dedication to bring broadband in by including deployment and service initiatives in their comprehensive plans. Your organization has designated a number of counties as “broadband ready”, including Banks, Evans, Lumpkin, Oglethorpe, and the cities of Claxton and Woodbury. Talk about the importance of municipalities and communities following that approach to bringing broadband.

Deana Perry:

Haralson County is a good example of how elected officials and the development authority led the charge and have been persistent in pursuing opportunities to bring connectivity to their citizens. When you demonstrate the willingness by local government to break down some of the barriers and to be a partner, you see ways to be creative in engaging the private sector providers in finding solutions and deploying. Oglethorpe County, the same example.

Deana Perry:

What those broadband ready designations illustrate is the willingness that there are a stakeholder group of leaders in that community who have recognized the need to build out to these unserved areas, knowing it will bring a service to their community and will certainly be critical for economic development. As we know, in the 21st century, it’s not just important to have water, sewer and electricity, but it’s also very important to have internet access. It’s no longer a luxury, but a need.

Deana Perry:

So these communities, by developing these grassroots efforts and these coalitions, illustrate their willingness to engage with internet service providers to work in partnership. And have the “broadband ready” designation is a way to promote and illustrate their efforts and their work and their willingness to bring on those partners.

Craig Corbin:

Are you finding more willingness now to participate in those public private partnerships?

Deana Perry:

We have. The Haralson County announcement in conjunction with Comcast is an example of that. Oglethorpe County was the first county to be designated as a “broadband ready” community.  They have engaged with a wireless provider and there’s a project underway there. We have talked with other counties that they too have started to offer assets that they may have, whether it be SPLOST dollars in part and seeking a private partner. Monroe County has done that. Oglethorpe County has done that. Newton County has done that. Banks County has done that.  That’s just a few and we’re seeing more counties do that. The city of Woodbury is an example of a city that took on a wireless and a partnership with a cable company.  Moving forward, GBDI will continue to develop tools to support and encourage investment around the state so that we can incentivize the deployment of broadband services statewide.

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