REGIONAL- A regional pilot test to develop location-specific internet speed maps is being deployed statewide as only the second such state-level initiative in the country to gather specific site data …
REGIONAL- A regional pilot test to develop location-specific internet speed maps is being deployed statewide as only the second such state-level initiative in the country to gather specific site data to bolster development of broadband services in rural areas.
The Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition, a group of nearly 100 local and county governments, agencies, philanthropies, businesses, and service providers, held an online teleconference on Monday to announce the initiative.
What makes this different from surveys done by towns, townships, and service providers is that the test is done sitting at a home or business computer or on a mobile device connected to the internet and takes less than two minutes to complete. An individual enters a full or partial address where their device is located, then clicks a button to connect to a server that determines the speed of the internet connection. The results are immediately transferred to a mapping program, and participants can view their results on the map right after the test is completed.
“The appeal of this particular test is it’s so easy to do,” project director Nathan Zacharias said. “It’s as easy as copying and pasting the link and going there.”
The Range Association of Municipalities and Schools was the driving force behind creating the pilot project, which has already generated over 7,000 responses in St. Louis, Itasca, and Koochiching counties. RAMS Executive Director Steve Georgi said the data gathered at the house-to-house level is essential to challenge maps that only show internet access by zip code or census tracts.
Zacharias said that 18 percent of rural Minnesotans do not have access to broadband, and that changes in usage patterns driven in part by adaptations in education and commerce driven by the COVID-19 pandemic have heightened the need to tackle that deficit.
Getting broadband to unserved areas likely won’t happen without government support, and the new site-specific maps generated by the speed test initiative will provide the granular data planners and advocates need to garner funding from legislators and agencies, Zacharais said.
“We know what’s under the topsoil on the Range – it’s a lot of rock in a lot of places,” Zacharias said. “The low-hanging fruit has already been picked. The easiest places to serve have already been served.”
While towns and townships have partnered with potential service providers to survey their communities for interest in broadband, Zacharias noted that that information isn’t shared with the rural broadband coalition unless a company, town, or township decides to make the results public.
“They’re not required in any way to share those sorts of surveys,” he said.
The speed test initiative gets around a common problem with service maps when it comes to rural areas, Zacharias explained. Rural areas typically have large census tracts, and maps showing broadband access at that level will show there is service in the tract even if only one household is receiving it.
Glenn Fishbine of GEO Partners, the Minnesota-based company that is providing the mapping tools, said that the system allows people to see service gaps anywhere, even in supposedly well-served communities where some people still have trouble connecting to broadband.
“It becomes a very simple and very valuable tool for determining resource allocation,” Fishbine said.
As project director, Zacharias is tasked with getting the word out statewide about the speed test. He said he would be working with various stakeholders, including the Minnesota Association of Counties and local school districts, to promote the test. Working directly with existing internet providers is also a possibility, he said, although they haven’t been approached yet.
“That might be something they’re receptive to,” he said.
To participate in the speed test initiative, go to http://mnruralbroadbandcoalition.com/speedtest.