An overview of broadband and digital divide questions as they relate to our area.
In an age when phones, tablets, and computers change rapidly, sometimes it's hard to keep up with the language. Product terms are often self-referential, with new improvements named after existing tools, so if you weren't familiar with 4G mobile technology, then 5G won't come naturally — but we've got that covered.
Since around 2000, the latest category to generate lots of vocabulary is broadband, the technology that makes "high-speed internet" possible. The number of terms and concepts is large enough to require a glossary, so we thought we'd supply a quick one.
What is "high-speed" internet?
The Federal Communications Commission defines it as download speeds of 25 mbps — or megabits per second — and upload speeds of 3 mbps (25/3). These speeds best serve single-user households, and the FCC uses them as a benchmark to collect data on who lacks internet access.
A significant debate has erupted in recent years over whether that benchmark is too low for a nation that has moved much of its life online, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of February 2020, Broadband Now estimates that Florida's average internet speed is 88.6 mbps.
Wondering what your internet speed is? In your search engine, type in "internet speed test." A blue button should appear that says, "run speed test." In a matter of seconds, your computer will tell you what your download and upload speeds are. Try testing it at different times during the day to see how multiple users affect your speeds.
How does high-speed internet reach my home?
About 90 percent of homes in Florida get high-speed broadband through old-fashioned black cables, according to Florida Internet and Television. These can either run along poles or underground. Underground cables supply clusters of customers, often between 50 and 250 homes, each who share a common terminus or "node." These are the green metal boxes you have seen buried at ground level, from which the signal connects to homes.
Broadband: The FCC defines it as "high-speed internet access that is always on and faster than the traditional dial-up access." Connections speeds vary widely and are measured in "megabits per second," or Mbps. The FCC's benchmark is 25/3 Mbps; "broadband" in general parlance is internet faster than 25 Mbps.
Bandwidth: The capacity that determines data transfer speed — often used broadly to distinguish slow from fast. Entering a meeting in an online calendar uses little bandwidth. Streaming movies use a lot.
Coaxial cable: This type of wiring replaced the copper in telephone lines. Cable transfers data efficiently but not as quickly or cleanly as broadband.
Fiber: A quantum leap after cable, fiber optic broadband sends the data in pulses of light passing through glass or plastic cables.
Dark fiber: Refers to internet infrastructure that does not yet have the hardware or software to provide services. It can include conduit and pull and splice boxes, through which fiber optic cables can be run at a later date.
DSL: An abbreviation for "digital subscriber line," which provides internet to users via a phone jack on an existing telephone network. Since DSL users each have their own connection to the internet, multiple users do not strain DSL lines when they are all online at once. But DSL lines are distance-sensitive, meaning that the farther away you are from the main access point, the weaker the signal gets — resulting in slower internet speeds.
Satellite: Companies began providing internet through satellite around six years ago. Now thousands of communications satellites orbit the earth to supply internet connectivity, including some used by Viasat and HughesNet, both of which supply Sarasota and neighboring counties.
While they can't handle data in bulk and is thus considerably slower than DSL or cable, satellite internet is a godsend for rural homes or other remote areas.
ISPs: A common abbreviation for "internet service providers," such as Frontier, Xfinity, and Spectrum.
I don't have high-speed internet. How can I get it?
Some suppliers already had programs to help asset-limited customers connect. Comcast, of which Xfinity is a residential arm, offers $9.95-a-month access with the first two months free to asset-limited applicants (those who can show eligibility for school lunches, SSI, or similar programs). The deal ends on Dec. 31 and is limited to new customers.
Who lacks high-speed internet?
The FCC estimates that 21.3 million people across the country lack high-speed, but other studies suggest that number is much higher, between 42 million and 162.8 million.
The "digital divide" is often thought of as a rural issue, since low population densities tend to steer away internet service providers. And while that may be true, some census data suggest that three times as many urban residents lack high-speed internet access as rural residents.
Locally, Broadband Now ranks Florida fifth in the nation for high-speed internet access, estimating that 96.8% of the state's population has access to speeds of 25 mbps or faster.
By county, Broadband Now paints an optimistic picture of internet access: 97.7% of Sarasota County residents, 99.5% of Manatee County residents, and 96.5% of Charlotte County residents are shown as having access to 25 mbps broadband speeds. DeSoto County lags further behind, at 83.5%.
But access is not the same as usage. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that, between 2014 and 2018, only 83.6% of Sarasota County households had an internet subscription — followed by Charlotte County, at 82.2%; Manatee County, at 80.8%; and DeSoto County, at 53%.
So, why the disparity?
The FCC's data collection methods have long been scrutinized for its shortcomings, including outdated speed benchmarks, blanket reporting of coverage areas, and lack of independent verification.
Every June and December, the FCC uses Form 477 to collect data on a census block level from broadband service providers. If a provider says it serves a single customer in a census block, the FCC counts that entire block as covered, thus overstating coverage.
Additionally, the FCC does not independently verify the data provided by internet service providers. This year, it allowed one of the country's largest service providers to overstate its coverage in thousands of areas, according to FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.
What can be done?
A variety of actions can be taken across the local, state, and federal levels. Pew Charitable Trusts has even launched an online broadband policy explorer to help track each state's efforts.
Some municipalities have struck up public-private partnerships with internet service providers to expand internet access for underserved residents.
Others are incorporating infrastructure into their road improvement projects to attract internet service providers to their areas, like the City of North Port.
Of course, the efforts extend far beyond the government level.
The school districts of Sarasota and Manatee counties joined others across the country in distributing laptops and internet hot spots to students in need when schools closed because of COVID-19.
Manatee County schools even outfitted dozens of its school buses with Wi-Fi to provide increased access throughout the community. And even though area libraries closed, many left their internet on, so regulars like Harry Reynolds could connect from the parking lot.
But there's no one-size-fits-all solution. Addressing the problem of digital inequity begins with understanding each community's individual needs, and the biggest success stories have emerged from cooperative efforts.
Enter the 2020 Census. The Herald-Tribune has published an array of stories outlining why participating in the decennial count is so crucial.
In the arena of digital access, the census can help provide more accurate, local data about computer and internet usage per household — thus helping local leaders target the areas with the most need.
What would 'digital access for all' look like?
Ideally, every member of a household would have access to both the internet speeds and the devices to meet their needs — whether it be online learning, remote working, or telehealth. Moreover, they would have access to the resources and training needed to use those devices properly.
This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire and engage the community to take action on issues related to digital access.