Rural Measures Project Addresses Broadband Disparities in Nebraska
April 21, 2021 | View PDF
The internet is an integral part of everyday life for most Americans.
We use it to communicate with friends and family, stream our favorite television shows and shop from the comfort of our living rooms.
More importantly, this technology connects health care providers with patients, teachers with students and businesses with a global marketplace.
Affordable, high-speed internet is almost a necessity in today’s world, yet many people living in the U.S. still lack access.
The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 19 million Americans – 6 percent of the population – don’t have access to broadband services with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps. A majority of these people – 14.5 million – live in rural areas.
“We feel for all those people in rural areas who are suffering from this,” said University of Nebraska at Kearney professor Tim Obermier, who is researching the digital divide with his colleague Angela Hollman. “You hear anecdotally all the time, ‘I can’t get good, quality internet.’ They either can’t get it at all, or they have satellite service, which is extremely limited in value because it’s so expensive for what you get.”
In a state where roughly 35 percent of the residents live in rural areas, it’s easy to spot the disparities between the haves and have-nots, especially during a global health crisis that forced people to learn and work from home.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed some “gaping holes” in Nebraska’s infrastructure, according to Hollman, an associate professor in UNK’s Department of Cyber Systems.
She can share story after story about UNK students who struggled with remote learning because they don’t have a high-speed internet connection at home. This impacted their ability to view lectures or upload assignments, forcing some students to drive to a relative’s house to get online or find a Wi-Fi hotspot they could access with their smartphone. UNK faculty faced the same problems.
Before she found another internet provider, Hollman had trouble with Zoom calls while working from her home northwest of Gibbon, an area that also lacks cell reception. Obermier, who lives south of Aurora, continues to deal with his unstable internet.
“This directly impacts a lot of people,” Hollman said. “It had a direct impact on my line of work, and it had a direct impact on students who were trying to get their education remotely.”
“All of this has been a big motivator for us to try to figure out how we can help Nebraska solve this problem,” added Obermier, who teaches in the departments of industrial technology and cyber systems.
RURAL MEASURES PROJECT
Obermier has conducted multiple studies analyzing the cost and capacity of internet services in Nebraska.
However, that research, much like the FCC estimates, relied on generalized data that came from the providers themselves.
“For a long time, the service providers have been the only source of this data,” Hollman noted. “There are no checks and balances.”
To fully understand the issue, Obermier and Hollman are taking this research one step further by comparing a customer’s internet package with the actual bandwidth they’re receiving. This data will more accurately depict the deficit experienced by rural residents, agricultural producers, businesses, schools and communities as a whole while assisting regulatory agencies and internet providers working to close the digital divide.
A one-of-a-kind undertaking, the Rural Measures project uses a small device developed by Hollman to measure internet speeds at an individual location. The quantitative throughput (QT) unit – a Raspberry Pi computer – is mailed to each participant along with a power cord and ethernet cable. After the device is installed and activated on the project’s website – RuralMeasures.com – it collects 1,800 bandwidth readings over seven days.
“It literally runs around the clock,” Obermier said. “We wanted to capture something of high statistical significance.”
These readings give the UNK research team a detailed look at each participant’s internet speeds. These can be compared with the speeds their provider promises and analyzed to determine whether there are differences between peak and nonpeak hours.
The project also includes a survey component designed to determine how the internet, or lack thereof, impacts someone’s quality of life. For instance, could they effectively start a business, access remote education or telehealth services or trade commodities online?
“The trend that we’re starting to see is the farther you move away from a populated area, the lower your internet speed gets,” Hollman noted.