With more people working and attending school from home, and relying on the internet for remote healthcare because of COVID-19, the digital divide has never been more apparent. The National Association of Counties is partnering with diverse groups to address broadband service gaps.
The National Association of Counties (NACo) is tackling the lack of reliable broadband, with a focus on underserved communities, by forming a task force composed of nearly three dozen county government officials from across the country.
“With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting families and businesses, the need for reliable high-speed internet is more acute than ever,” said task force co-chair Craig Rice, a Montgomery County, Maryland council member, in a press release.
The new task force will assemble a better—and more accurate—understanding of public- and private-sector efforts to use broadband networks and develop a plan for local governments to help them close the digital divide.
Connectivity data provided to the Federal Communications Commission is often inaccurate and inflated—leaving many rural communities overlooked and disconnected, according to Arthur Scott, NACo’s associate legislative director and political outreach manager.
Nearly a year and half ago, NACo took aim at rectifying the discrepancies in the FCC’s data-collection process by forming a partnership with the National Association of Development Organizations, Land O’ Lakes, and other stakeholders to develop a mobile app designed to identify areas with low or no connectivity to help ensure there is adequate funding for broadband infrastructure across the country.
The TestIT app leverages a broadband sampling tool to aggregate broadband speeds across the country from app users. The app allows users to click on a button and run a diagnostics test to see what their download speed is. Users can also compare their internet speeds to the national average and minimum standards established by the FCC.
“On the backend, it’s great for us to have that information, along with the date, time, and geographic coordinates of where the test was taken,” Scott said. “The data is truly invaluable for advocacy efforts.”
Nearly 65 percent of U.S. counties experience the internet at speeds below minimum standards set by the FCC, with that number even higher in rural America, where 77 percent of counties operate below the FCC standard, according to a report released by NACo and partner organizations earlier this year.
Lack of reliable broadband is a major barrier to socioeconomic opportunity, education, healthcare, and overall quality of life. Without access to high-speed internet, many rural communities—and even pockets in urban areas—are isolated and left behind.
A 2018 Microsoft study found that 19 million rural Americans do not use broadband, largely due to a lack of access. And an April 2020 study by the Pew Research Center found that 22 percent of homebound schoolchildren would have to use public Wi-Fi to finish their schoolwork because there was not a reliable internet connection at home.
When NACo started developing the TestIT app, they looked to logical partner organizations, but soon realized there were other nontraditional organizations that also had a vested interest in improving broadband. Scott was initially taken aback when Land O’ Lakes approached them wanting to partner, because he didn’t immediately make the connection that broadband is the nexus for them and their consumer base, as a company involved in the food supply chain, modern agriculture, and more.
According to Scott, it took thinking outside the box to draw interest from companies like Land O’ Lakes. “If you’re getting enough people in the same room with you, and you’re having the discussions, you start attracting people that can really serve as a force multiplier in your efforts,” he said.