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July 20, 2020 | News

Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative Successfully Utilizes Data for Effective Decision Making

Writer: Deana Perry

Published July 20, 2020
Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

On June 30, the issues of our statewide digital divide were illustrated with the release of the Georgia Broadband Availability map. This mapping initiative is a key component of our strategic purpose. Our ongoing partnership with the Georgia Technology Authority (GTA) and Carl Vinson Institute of Government affords us the opportunity to illustrate statewide challenges to internet access and provide key stakeholders a tool with enhanced precision to make data-driven decisions.

This tool, the first of its kind, reflects more than 5 million locations in all 159 counties. In the span of 18 months, the methodology was executed by overlaying every home and business along with broadband provider service availability for those locations to provide an enhanced comprehensive, in-depth view of served and unserved areas.

Broadband services in Georgia are defined as a minimum of 25Mbps/3Mbps for download and upload speeds, respectively. A Census block is considered unserved if 20% of homes and businesses are unable to subscribe to those services.

Data is now available statewide and by county and can also be compared to FCC mapping. The new map will bring more transparency about the internet marketplace and clarify which households do not have access to high-speed internet.

In total, 43 of the 44 Georgia’s broadband providers provided data for this effort. Based on our mapping efforts, 507,341 locations and 50,728 Census blocks are unserved -- nearly 70% of these locations are in rural parts of Georgia. This essential data can now be leveraged to better direct investment to reach unserved areas of the state, used by local communities and providers to assist with broadband planning efforts, and utilized to track changes in broadband availability.

COVID-19 revealed what our team has known for some time: Internet access should be open to everyone. In 2018, the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative (GBDI) was created by legislation with this ideology in mind and spurred the work of advocacy, education, partnerships and technical assistance throughout the state in order to provide opportunities for communities to benefit from broadband access.

This year, broadband’s impact on education and business was catapulted to public consciousness due to the pandemic. As schools swiftly closed their doors and distance learning was mandated, inequality in access was made abundantly clear.

In an effort to develop a short-term solution, the GBDI team partnered with internet services providers and a multi-agency network to develop a listing of existing public locations across the state that offered free Wi-Fi as well as a directory for free or low-cost connectivity options. In addition, we have assisted the Department of Education in the deployment of remote learning solutions using preliminary mapping results.

Additionally, Georgia communities are demonstrating their dedication to being broadband ready by proactively integrating broadband-related deployment and service initiatives in their comprehensive plans. As a result, Broadband Ready designations have been awarded to the following communities: Banks County, Evans County, Lumpkin County, Oglethorpe County, City of Claxton, and City of Woodbury.

The fundamental component to expand broadband access relies on additional funding and public- private partnerships. In June alone, $21.5 million in funds were committed to rural broadband. Comcast announced a $9 million investment in internet access expansion in four rural communities: Tallapoosa, Mount Zion, Waco and Whitesburg. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced DoveTel Communications will utilize $12.5 million in a ReConnect grant for broadband access in Heard, Troup and Carroll counties intended to benefit not only homes and businesses but also 121 farms, four fire stations, and an elementary school.

Another GBDI intiative is the Speedtest by Ookla® pilot project. Its purpose is to enable local leaders to effectively assess distance learning on a long-term basis. GBDI is assisting the Department of Education (DOE) and school districts to deploy wireless solutions for student connectivity in all 216 districts. Working in partnership with DOE and wireless providers as a team, the broadband map and Ookla speed test data will be used to provide detailed guidance to school districts who will evaluate the best locations for wireless solutions deployments to achieve instruction continuity for students. 

We recognize that barriers to broadband are not limited to Georgia but instead part of a national narrative about the digital divide. Our collaboration with surrounding states has permitted us to gain insight into the challenges in different areas as well as set a precedent for how to develop effective partnerships that lead to sustainable outcomes.

Tamarah Holmes, Virginia’s Broadband Director, said our work has “forever changed the face of broadband mapping.” As we continue to navigate the broadband landscape, we anticipate even more opportunities to learn, affect change, and help to build strong, vibrant communities.