Solving for accuracy in planning was a critical component of our approach. For us, it starts with geospatial data. We must see and understand the magnitude of the [issues], know where those issues are, and ultimately try to determine an equitable distribution across our rural districts.
Placer County, California, Advances Broadband Strategy through the Aid of ARPA Funding
Rural broadband advocacy is a top priority for Placer County as a means of closing the gap in the digital divide for the county's residents. This Northern California county's broadband plan is designed to create economic opportunity through a connected, countywide strategy. In a recent statement, Placer County chief information officer Jarret Thiessen said, "The county has been tirelessly advocating for the expansion and improvement of broadband services on behalf of its residents, especially those in our rural communities."
The vital importance of broadband connectivity became abundantly clear at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many citizens found themselves working from home or going to school online. Those without adequate broadband service found themselves at a distinct disadvantage, and in Placer County, this primarily impacted rural communities. The emphasis of broadband as critical infrastructure for all was accentuated in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Placer County capitalized on the opportunity these stimulus efforts afforded, allocating $10 million of its $78 million ARPA grant funds to broadband improvement.
Those without adequate broadband service found themselves at a distinct disadvantage, and in Placer County, this primarily impacted rural communities.
GIS Helps Manage the Program for Maximum Impact
While grant funding will go far in helping the county meet its broadband goals, leadership recognized that building out broadband infrastructure to cover over 400,000 residents spread across 1,052 square miles of mountainous terrain would require careful and considerate planning. The county turned to geographic information system (GIS) technology to better understand coverage, see gaps in service, and make a positive impact on vulnerable populations.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, it became very clear that across the United States, the digital divide was greater than it appeared, and the need for quality broadband became a national priority. Many children could not do their homework due to a lack of basic internet service, and elderly residents had difficulty getting access to care with many health-care services going virtual. Broadband had become a tool that provided basic human connection in society, and individuals who did not have access were put at a disadvantage.
Interestingly, when the county began evaluating the existing network, staff realized there was not enough data to identify the extent of the service divide, and service gap location information was lacking. The Placer County information systems team decided to begin mapping existing provider networks in relation to underserved and unserved residents and businesses. The county recognized the need to balance its plans by seeking input through a public survey to further identify at-risk communities. GIS was viewed as an essential part of the county's strategy to map not only the infrastructure but also the actual survey results.
Addressing Broadband Is Placer County's Key to Sustainable Infrastructure
Placer County has always accepted GIS as a foundational tool. Staff have met many challenges like addressing homelessness in the county with GIS, so broadband was the next challenge, and the information systems team was ready with the geospatial infrastructure to address it.
Phil Salter, GIS manager at Placer County, said, "We have the tools in GIS for data collection and broadband design framework. We see GIS as a vehicle to visualize things we need to know, like existing providers in the county and even community demographics."
The team at Placer County wanted to know more specifics on broadband service quality to better support the business community as well as provide internet access to students and employees working from home. This level of community engagement would allow the team to collect more detailed information from residents and businesses and get a clear picture of their needs.
Dieter Wittenberg, the information technology telecom manager responsible for overseeing broadband efforts at Placer County, said, "Solving for accuracy in planning was a critical component of our approach. For us, it starts with geospatial data. We must see and understand the magnitude of the [issues], know where those issues are, and ultimately try to determine an equitable distribution across our rural districts."
GIS Comes into Action
To start to develop a more holistic understanding of the community, Salter determined the GIS work would include a two-step process. First, the county needed to crowdsource additional data and gain insight; then, the county fed this information to dashboards that decision-makers could use to better allocate resources and determine priorities. To hear directly from the community, Salter launched a survey tool using ArcGIS Survey123, which asked residents questions like the following:
- What is your service address?
- What is your current internet service provider at this address?
- What is your current download speed?
- How would you rate your internet consistency?
- Do you experience outages or slowdowns?
These questions allowed the team to better understand and visualize who was affected by poor connectivity, who was in need of greater internet reliability, and so forth. The data from the survey was then displayed via ArcGIS Dashboards, which allowed the county to compare the service levels of businesses versus residents, understand the balance of the different providers in the county, and identify areas where service was lacking. Empowered with this information, decision-makers can now direct broadband expansion activities in the areas that need it most, through data-driven analysis of coverage areas.
Placer County rolled out its 2021 Last Mile Broadband Grant program to provide resources to new and existing internet service providers. This is to encourage investment into broadband infrastructure that will support economic development, public safety, remote learning, telehealth services, and overall community prosperity. The county continues to seek new grant opportunities for rural broadband programs at the federal and state levels with the intent to deploy funds for broadband infrastructure improvements in the future. GIS was an essential part of this strategy.
What's Next for Placer County
Placer County is in the beginning stages of implementing its broadband initiative plan. While working to collect data and understand the county's needs, staff are looking into things like how they can enable cross-departmental collaboration. For example, they are looking to find a mechanism rooted in GIS to coordinate construction with other capital projects while upgrading the county's current broadband. Staff hope to be able to take data from the transportation team and identify the parts of the county with private roads versus where there is public infrastructure—this information will help prioritize the rollout of modifications to existing infrastructure. For Placer County, GIS plays a part in the county's vision. Early on, staff understood the foundational role GIS could serve in the county's broadband project. They were able to improve decision-making, more accurately place resources, and increase cross-departmental coordination, and they continue to advance their initiative to address sustainable broadband service.