Drive testing reveals gaps in broadband coverage that could impact public safety


Staff Report



COLUMBUS – Just how connected is southeast Ohio? It’s the question the Ohio Department of Transportation asked Connected Nation’s (CN) subsidiary, Connect Ohio, to answer in an effort to improve its dispatch and routing software and hardware.

Chip Spann is the Director of Engineering & Technical Services (ETS) for CN and leads the drive-testing work being done for ODOT, and he’s begun sharing CN’s findings with community leaders and public safety officials. He says the updated data maps reveal serious issues that not only impact public transportation but public safety.

“As we go over the gaps in broadband coverage, you see a light bulb go off for people. They’re realizing this is not just about being able to use your phone to post selfies. And, it’s not just about self-driving vehicles or public transportation,” Spann said. “There’s a bigger piece of this in regard to public safety. Imagine if you’re in a car wreck and you’re hurt. Having a way to get help can mean the difference between life and death. The same goes for law enforcement. What happens if an officer gets into a dangerous situation and can’t contact someone? Or, what if a person who is stopped for a routine traffic violation is actually a criminal and they are only ticketed and not taken into custody simply because the officer has no way of knowing that person is a danger to the public?”

ODOT was awarded 2015 Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) VII competitive grant program funds by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to improve Ohio’s rural transit systems’ scheduling and dispatching software/hardware and to expand broadband into areas of Ohio with insufficient broadband access.

Through Connect Ohio’s analysis, ten counties in southeast Ohio were identified as having the greatest need to improve broadband access: Carroll, Guernsey, Harrison, Morgan, Monroe, Muskingum, Perry, Pike, Scioto, and Washington counties. ODOT asked CN to complete drive-testing in these ten counties and identify gaps in mobile broadband performance for the four major carriers—Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint—and provide solutions that could help fill those gaps.

“We found a substantial difference in the “perceived” coverage reported by the mobile carriers in these counties,” Spann said. “While their coverage maps are often based on predictive propagation models, we took the long and in-depth approach of drive testing every inch of those ten counties that we could physically access.”

Recognizing the issues that arise through inaccurate mapping, a bipartisan group of seven U.S. Senators filed a bill in mid-May to require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to collect accurate and up-to-date data on wireless broadband coverage. Dubbed the Rural Wireless Act of 2017, the bill would help provide access to families, businesses, schools, agricultural producers, first responders, and others in rural areas by ensuring current mobile broadband coverage data is accurate and up-to-date.

“Having good data is where everything starts,” said Tom Ferree, CEO of CN. “There is no way for a county commissioner, much less an FCC commissioner, to know what really needs to be done until accurate data is collected and analyzed. For that reason, Connected Nation has always relied on a team of skilled broadband engineers and GIS analysts to not only map where broadband is and where it isn’t, but in also determining that where access does exist, is it truly to today’s requirements for speed and reliability. These additional qualitative measures must be in place to further ensure that we are not effectively leaving families and businesses out of opportunities for improved economics, better education, and even regular healthcare.”

“The public involvement process developed through the T2O project has provided the platform to take the broadband message to local community leaders. Through this project we are able to educate county commissioners, township trustees, sheriffs, county engineers, and others on the ability to bring broadband to the rural communities through coordinated efforts,” said Jane Miller, Transit Tech Ohio (T2O) Project Manager. “As the project continues, more agencies understand how working together under one project can provide multiple benefits such as better access to online education and job searches, businesses can advertise on the web, and improved safety as individuals would be able to make contact in emergency situations.”

“Once implemented, ODOT is excited for the improved customer service this project will bring to Ohio’s rural public transit systems which should also return more customer access,” said Chuck Dyer, ODOT Office of Transit. “Additionally ODOT is looking to see how this improved broadband can assist with better coordination of existing resources.”

“The broadband mapping methodologies that we have developed and continue to evolve allow us to pinpoint the areas that are consistently being left out,” said Ashley Hitt, Director of GIS Services for CN. “For mobile wireless coverage, we’ve been able to collect and analyze very detailed data for a number of carriers across the country that not only show the service gaps, but help both local officials and the ISPs visualize where expansion efforts should be focused.”

What’s next for Ohio?

The findings of the Ohio driving testing are now being shared with ODOT, the state of Ohio, and the communities most directly impacted. The maps break down coverage by each individual carrier and provide an overview of where broadband is lacking. Connected Nation will also provide a “road map” for eliminating those gaps to those stakeholders and to the carriers.

The next step will be getting proposals from mobile carriers for meeting those needs. ODOT will be offering up some of its assets (e.g., land, rooftops, and towers) and, through Connect Ohio, administering federals funds for those mobile carriers to complete the work. If all goes as planned, many of these gaps in broadband coverage in southern Ohio will be filled by December 31, 2018.

About Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT): ODOT’s mission is to provide easy movement of people and goods from place to place, while The Office of Transit’s mission is to advocate for safe and reliable personal mobility by coordinating and funding public transportation as a vital element of Ohio’s transportation system. This project supports ODOT’s mission by improving safety, cost effectiveness, and service efficiency.

PLEASE NOTE: This material is based upon work supported by the USDOT under FTA FY 2015 TIGER Grant No OH-2016-036-00. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the USDOT.

About Connected Nation: Connected Nation is a leading technology organization committed to bringing affordable high-speed Internet and broadband-enabled resources to all Americans. Connected Nation works with consumers, local community leaders, states, technology providers, and foundations to develop and implement technology expansion programs with core competencies centered on a mission to improve digital inclusion for people and places previously underserved or overlooked.

For more information, please visit: www.connectednation.org/. Follow Connected Nation on Facebook and Twitter.

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Staff Report