Crowd Source Solutions – Validating broadband availability

In 2012 the Gold County Broadband Consortia, one of the 14 Consortial funded by the California Public Utilities Commission, recognized that the California Broadband Maps did not reveal the correct broadband coverage at advertised speeds. GCBC developed a survey and purchased booth space at the Nevada County Fair. They asked fairgoers to fill out the survey and report the availability of broadband at their address, including provider if they had broadband access and relative speed. About 400 surveys were filled out, with 334 that had useful information, including the phone number of the family filling out the survey. As the consultant on the project, I phoned many of the survey takers and validated the provided information.

The validated data was plotted using Arc/GIS Online and presented to the CPUC staff to demonstrate the deficiencies in the California Broadband Maps. The result was the formation of a CPUC GIS Working Group and creation of the CA Broadband Map Public Feedback Layer. The GCBC working with the CPUC developed a more comprehensive survey that encouraged the users to use online internet speed services to check their access speed and report it using the survey. The completed surveys were compiled on Excel spreadsheet and submitted to the CPUC. An online version of the form was developed that produced a Google Spreadsheet, which could be sent directly to the CPUC Mapping Team, after some minor clean up and validation. More details including plots of the findings HERE.

Seeking a more data-driven approach, I developed a broadband speed recorder based on an article in Make Magazine – Use Raspberry Pi to Measure Broadband Speeds to Hold Your ISP Accountable, February 1, 2016. [ ] My goal was to build a recorder that could be deployed for less than $250 a unit. A box that worked when plugged into an ethernet port on a router and power applied, the only requirement was to check the ethernet status lights to ensure data was flowing to the box. After developing a prototype, I proposed to the GCBC they build ten of these recorders that could be loaned out for seven days and then returned for analysis. The data is downloaded from the Pi recorder in Excel format and analyzed using a Python data plotting program.

Recorder Sample Output

Wave Tri Display

Under the proposal, a week of data would be collected sampled every 30 minutes. This data would be summarized and plotted on a map using Arc/GIS Online, listing the min, max and average for ISP download, upload and ping timing in a popup information window. Under ideal conditions, 30-40 data points could be collected per month. The concept was to focus on areas with limited broadband validating the actual conditions of service, speed, and reliability, over a week period under varying conditions. More data points could be collected by building new Pi Recorders. The GCBC Program Manager decided not to accept the data collection proposal and continued to collect online surveys.

The Federal Government had a similar program called Measuring Broadband America.

The Measuring Broadband America (MBA) program is an ongoing nationwide performance study of broadband service in the United States that developed out of a recommendation by the National Broadband Plan to improve the availability of information for consumers about their broadband service. This program is built on principles of openness and transparency. The FCC has made available to stakeholders and the general public the open source software used on both its fixed and mobile applications, the data collected, and detailed information regarding the FCC’s technical methodology for analyzing the collected data.

Measuring Fixed Wire Broadband

Reports offer results of rigorous broadband performance testing for 13 of the largest wireline broadband providers that serve well over 80 percent of the U.S. consumer market. Tests conducted used automated, direct measurements of service delivered to the homes of thousands of volunteers across the United States. The Measuring Fixed Broadband studies began in 2011 with the release of annual reports based on data typically collected during a single month with few large-scale traffic events, such as major holidays, sports events or other elections. The data analyzed in the Reports thus reflect stable network conditions that provide the most accurate view of a provider’s performance under controlled conditions.

The FCC works in collaboration with SamKnows, an international statistics, and analytics firm supporting similar projects in other countries around the world. The Measuring Broadband America program incorporates the latest engineering best practices from these diverse stakeholders to collect and report the most accurate data for consumer broadband performance in the United States. Learn More. See most recent report HERE.

The latest report is from December of 2016, and we are almost to the middle of 2018. The last data on file is August of 2016. It appears the data collection has been terminated. Final report charts are HERE.

Other than the testing being terminated, the real problem is that it was only testing wireline services (telephone wire, fiber, and cable) when fixed wireless ISPs serve significant portions of rural areas. Wireline services are in dense population areas and are not meeting the needs of more dispersed rural citizens. If these rural citizens have broadband at all, it is crappy DSL or fixed wireless services. DSL was tested, but fixed wireless was not. Mobile wireless (cell phone) service was tested, and coverage reported. Mobile testing covered in a future post.

If there is a nationwide test program initiated to improve broadband maps, to identify where investments should be focused, it should be on the fringes where the fixed wireless ISPs are struggling to fill in the gaps left by the top tier wireline providers. The broadband testing needs to focus on collecting and plotting the scope of fixed wireless services using low-cost recorders such as those provided by SamKnows or DIY reordered like the Raspberry Pi device described above.

If I were a community leader in a rural community seeking broadband access, I would be crowdsourcing the data collection, not waiting for a government testing program. Those communities who have done their homework and have identified the broadband deficiencies will be prepared to respond to State or Federal request for proposals quickly. Expanding and improving fixed wireless will have the more significant return on investment for the American Taxpayer and rural citizens than giving more money to wireline providers who are reluctant to serve low-density population communities or rural areas.

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