If you’re handing these dollars out, you’ve got to be able to monitor if you’re making progress. All of us want to see this money stretch as far as it can.
Ookla's Data Helps Governments See Digital Divides on a Map
When so much of our lives happens online—from work and school to doctor appointments and job applications—reliable connectivity is as critical a utility as electricity and water. Yet, about 24 million Americans live in areas with limited or no access to high-speed internet.
Ookla makes some of its data available publicly every quarter in order to give emergency and relief operations a general idea of the kind of internet speeds, or lack thereof, they're likely to encounter on a mission. Through a program called Ookla for Good, the data is aggregated and free.
"We felt it was important, particularly for [nonprofit organizations], to have access to some data where they just needed to understand what's available and what isn't," said Bryan Darr, vice president of smart communities, Ookla.
Leaders in both the private and public sector are working to identify digital divides and plan infrastructure upgrades to support equitable access, encouraged by the $65 billion in Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding to expand broadband networks across the country. The bulk of the funding will be managed by the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program.
But creating an effective plan for broadband equity first requires answering key location-based questions: Where are the existing networks of cables and towers? Where is demand high but supply inadequate? Where are people living with no internet access?
To gather answers in Phoenix, Arizona, and several surrounding municipalities, as well as for the wider Southeastern Arizona Governments Organization, government officials and broadband providers went looking for patterns in the data of people's daily lives.
Ookla, a global leader in network intelligence and connectivity insights, has been critical to the search.
Speedtest by Ookla measures a person's internet download speed (such as for video streaming), upload speed (important to videoconferencing), and latency (essential to gaming and speedy web browsing). Smart maps, made using a geographic information system (GIS), can layer data from Ookla with other information, such as demographics and income, to show where the greatest needs exist.
The location intelligence reveals insights such as where there are households with multiple occupants needing two, three, or more video streams simultaneously. It pinpoints places where internet access is deemed insufficient to meet the needs of residents.
Intersections of data, when viewed on a map, show decision-makers where to expand broadband coverage, where to update infrastructure, and where to reach out to customers.
Location Precision Comes from Wide-Reaching Data Collection
The Speedtest data Ookla collects is entirely crowdsourced. More than 50 million unique devices in the US have downloaded the app on Apple and Android devices. Upon being opened, Ookla's app connects, via the user's internet service provider, to the nearest Ookla Speedtest server. There are more than 16,000 of these servers around the world, with more than 1,600 in the US. This vast network enables users to test while connected to a nearby server, which means that the speeds measured are a more accurate reflection of what their ISP provides.
"That's why we have such an extraordinary amount of data that's so precise," said Bryan Darr, vice president of smart communities at Ookla.
It's how Ookla can show what internet speeds people are experiencing and where. It's utilizing the same location-based technology that supports ride shares and food-delivery services.
And when a local government wants to know how internet speeds relate to household income, the number of people per household, and the ages of household members, "mapping all of that is really the only thing that can provide [people] a picture of what's happening across their community," Darr said.
Pandemic Exposes Internet Needs
Government leaders have noted digital divides affecting rural areas especially, because the infrastructure costs for private providers to extend high-speed networks is prohibitive. But there have been pockets of poor coverage in cities too, either because the infrastructure was missing or antiquated or the internet service wasn't affordable.
It took the pandemic to drive the issue home.
"Broadband went from being a nice-to-have, or need-to-have for some people, to suddenly everyone had to have it during the lockdown," Darr said. "If you did not have access, you could not work, you could not learn," he explained, referring to remote work and schooling requirements at the time. Socially, it became even more necessary for the homebound, who needed it to retain a connection to the outside world.
Ookla had been licensing its data long before the pandemic—to internet service providers, mobile network operators, cities, states, tribes, global agencies, and US government entities—but now, there is greater need for far more local information.
For example, the State of Georgia searched Ookla's data for information about low wireless signals and internet traffic throughput. The Georgia Department of Education determined where best to position school buses equipped with Wi-Fi beacons so that students could do their work while sitting onboard.
Broadband Puzzle Pieces Are Put Together
Revealing a digital divide is more complex than scouting available physical infrastructure. The problem becomes a mix of determining where the infrastructure is located, where people need it, and how affordable it is.
Multiunit apartments and condos may not have much of a choice on providers, or they may have the service included in the rent at a fixed price. People in living situations where shelter may not be a certainty would have a difficult time relying on anything but a mobile device dependent on cell signals.
Mapping data serves another purpose: tracking results to see if the broadband can handle growth as more people connect more devices, and technologies demand more bandwidth.
"If you're handing these dollars out, you've got to be able to monitor if you're making progress," Darr said. "All of us want to see this money stretch as far as it can."
Leaders across the country are relying on geospatial tools to analyze internet access in context of location. The insights go a long way toward planning infrastructure development and ensuring that everyone can maintain the connections that are most crucial in their lives.