Bridging the Digital Divide in Ohio with GIS
Access to reliable and high-speed internet is essential for businesses and households in our modern world. The State of Ohio and its leadership understand this and are taking steps to help bridge and close the digital divide. But what sets Ohio apart is that its leaders understand that these efforts must start with authoritative data and an accurate picture of broadband access across the state.
With geographic information system (GIS) technology, Ohio has increased insight into its community needs and developed a comprehensive broadband strategy. GIS and spatial data can be utilized to help recognize areas that are underserved or even unserved from a broadband perspective. GIS also provides data and visualizations for applying federal and state funding to ensure that people will be better connected in the future.
Of the state's regions, Appalachia—consisting of 32 counties in southern and eastern Ohio—is considered the least connected. A coalition of local government councils and business leaders, known as Connecting Appalachia, is turning to GIS and demographic analysis to address the lack of broadband access.
Using GIS to Help Decision-Makers Strategically Invest in Underserved Communities
Today, access to reliable and high-speed broadband is important to all generations. Students are learning in online classes, millions in the workforce are working remotely, and even doctors are consulting through teleconference.
In Ohio, the focus on affordable broadband access has the support of executives as well as elected officials all the way up to the governor. Their goal is to connect rural and underserved areas with reliable internet service so that these communities can compete with the rest of the state and be a driving force for economic growth.
But many governments are challenged to understand who and where the communities are that are underserved or unserved and have unreliable or unaffordable broadband.
For example, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reported that only 190,000 households in the entire state of Ohio cannot access broadband, but state leaders believe this number is even higher. Much of the concern is that the FCC reports are based on information submitted in FCC Form 477s from the service providers and are not validated by another source. The results from the FCC Form 477s are being used to determine the level of funding necessary to provide additional broadband services in Ohio.
The FCC requires service providers to identify coverage and fastest speeds at the census block level. But the issue with this method of filing is that even if the provider identifies just one house with high broadband speeds in a census block, the entire census block is considered to have speed at that level. This filing method could paint a picture with way too broad of a brush—potentially leaving multiple houses or neighborhoods in the dark.
Large areas of Ohio do not have what meets the federal definition of high-speed internet. Many of these areas are rural, but this digital divide can also impact urban areas. Enabling reliable and affordable access to high-speed internet is extremely important to current economic and educational development in Ohio.
Ohio leaders knew they must prioritize data collection directly from the residents to gain a more authoritative and complete picture of their state's broadband challenges.
Developing a Digital Solution for Broadband Coverage Analysis
Platte River Analytics, a bronze Esri partner, and Reid Consulting Group teamed up to derive coverage ratings for all of Ohio, combining internet speeds, demographics, and GIS spatial analyses. For the project, broadband internet speeds and locations were compiled using ArcGIS Survey123 with Ookla Speedtest Intelligence data.
The Speedtest Intelligence records were acquired from fixed-broadband users from February 2020 through August 2021. Combined with the analysis were FCC Form 477 records, High Cost Universal Broadband (HUBB) reports from Universal Service Administrative Company and census demographic data. By integrating Ookla, a service that allows users to collect internet access performance metrics and perform analysis with a digital survey tool, the Connecting Appalachia coalition was able to collect demographic and internet speed data.
The solution put potential funding into the hands of the people of Ohio. Ohioans were invited, through social media efforts, to submit their own test speed results via the survey. This would increase the number of speed tests, plus it would mean that the tests were conducted more efficiently and across a larger area. It also would help the state fact-check the provider and FCC data.
Platte River Analytics created multiple layers in ArcGIS Online containing coverage ratings, speed test results, census data, business locations, and occupied housing. These layers provide easy access to broadband speed test results and are a single source of information for analysis and research.
Coverage ratings from the Ookla speed test data were based on median calculated download/upload speeds and symbolized in ArcGIS Pro on a color ramp that ranges from dark red to dark green. Below 10/1 Mbps is dark red, and above 100/20 Mbps is dark green. The coverage ratings were joined to census block and block group-level data in ArcGIS Pro.
After filtering out cellular and satellite providers, all results within a 100-meter radius were averaged to generate an overall speed for each location. Census block ratings were then derived by taking the median of all location averages within each block. Where possible, areas with no Ookla data were assigned an extrapolated rating based on comparative analysis of population density, FCC Form 477 data, and the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase 1 auction award maps.
After the data was analyzed and symbolized in ArcGIS Pro, the spatial and tabular data was published in ArcGIS Online. Once published, the block and block group-level ratings were joined with additional information like fiber lines, transportation, demographics, and coverage territories, creating a clear picture on broadband access.
The final analysis featured multiple layers for users to select from—they can add the layers they want to visualize in the online map. The icons and layer symbology are saved so that each user will have similar views and maps.
Understanding the Broadband Access Results
When presented with the final analysis, decision-makers were astounded. The reality was that the FCC had significantly underestimated the number of households in Ohio that do not have access to reliable broadband internet. The analysis showed that, statewide, there are nearly 800,000 households with internet speeds below the FCC minimum of 25/3 Mbps. And in Appalachian Ohio, 55 percent of the populated areas access the internet at speeds less than 10 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads. These facts are based on millions of speed tests run by ordinary people.
It is apparent that as state and federal funding becomes available, Ohio must advocate for accurate maps, efficient deployment of resources, and responsible funds distribution to establish manageable broadband standards. The good news is that many other agencies are using these test results to verify broadband speeds and availability—and the more tests that are completed, the more accurate the data becomes.
Interactive and dynamic maps revealing areas of Ohio that are underserved or unserved are essential to closing the digital divide.