Digital access and inclusion are critical needs in society today. Without a reliable broadband connection, people are prevented from necessary tasks like applying for jobs, learning new skills, accessing social services and healthcare, and more. The good news is that across the country, we have new access to funding thanks to the historic Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which allocates $65 billion in backing for broadband access.
In Southwestern Pennsylvania, we are at the forefront of understanding the impact that the lack of broadband availability and access has on our communities. Recognizing the need to improve broadband access, the region has formed Southwestern Pennsylvania (SWPA) Connected, a regional consortium that includes Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, Carnegie Mellon University, Allies for Children, 10 counties, the City of Pittsburgh and a diverse group of regional partners, in addition to our broadband team at Michael Baker International. During Fall and Winter 2021, we facilitated the development of the equitable Connectivity Roadmap to provide affordable, reliable broadband internet access across the region in-line with federal funding requirements. The Connectivity Roadmap is similar to the Five-Year Action Plan required by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for states to receive broadband planning and deployment funding.
The first step to providing broadband access is to determine where access is lacking or nonexistent. Our team created a Broadband Access Index Dashboard to identify areas that have the greatest need for broadband access. This dashboard creates an index score using several datasets designed to visually interpret broadband and funding eligibility, as well as the socioeconomic impacts the lack of broadband has on a given locality.
Our team partnered with one of the members of SWPA Connected, Washington County Authority, to leverage the Broadband Access Index Dashboard. Through this partnership, Washington County Authority discovered that the first known habited location in the United States, Avella, a small town in Washington County, Pennsylvania, still did not have access to broadband. The historic town is home to the Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village, a Smithsonian-affiliated Museum depicting scenes of early life and spectacles of the present. The town described their access to broadband as “spotty, at best…”.
Avella’s broadband index score was 23 out of 100. For reference, a score of 40 or less qualifies a location to be included within an Opportunity Area, locations in need of high-speed internet access and associated connectivity programs. By leveraging the dashboard, John Timney, Washington County Authority Executive Director, was able to use the Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village project as a pilot for Washington County’s Rural Broadband Initiative, which is slated to utilize $30M in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to bring broadband to rural areas of the county, including Meadowcroft. As of April 2022, Meadowcroft now has access to high-speed internet thanks to the implementation of this fiber project, which enables worldwide access to the site, including virtual field trips.
With the successful launch of the Broadband Access Index Dashboard and its use for the Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village came several key learnings:
- Identifying the Right Data Variables: As we developed the Broadband Access Index Dashboard, we found that we needed to collaboratively include multiple datasets that consider various geographic factors, such as broadband coverage, socioeconomics, Title VI and environmental justice factors, to ensure communities that are typically overlooked for broadband expansion can get connected. We used available information from the Federal Communications Commission, U.S. Census Bureau, Ookla and Measurement Lab and additional datasets sourced from the SPC Open Data Portal and U.S. Census Bureau, providing us with socioeconomic, Title VI and environmental justice factor datasets. All of these factors were integrated to develop a Connectivity Opportunity Area Index Score that guides funding, project development and policy for infrastructure and social programs related to broadband access and inclusion.
- Partnering to Ensure Connectivity: To ensure Meadowcroft Rock Shelter and Historic Village’s connectivity to the world, beneficial partnerships were identified during both pre-project planning and implementation. This was a key to the project’s success. During the project’s implementation, the Washington County Authority partnered with a local fiber provider, Hickory Telephone Company, to leverage Hickory Telephone’s existing service territory to extend access to Meadowcroft. This implementation partnership was supported using GIS applications built by Michael Baker during the pre-project planning phase. Our team was contracted by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission to develop the broadband web mapping system alongside Carnegie Mellon University’s Metro21 Smart Cities Institute and Traffic21 Transportation Research Institute, as well as Allies for Children.
Through broadband, communities and individuals can access information that is essential to everyday life. As digital technology continues to evolve and improve, we are working toward digital equity and as a result, internet for all.