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University's eCorridors program assists Alaska in assessing broadband


BLACKSBURG, Va., June 8, 2009 – Virginia Tech's eCorridors program and the Northwest Arctic Broadband Task Force recently conducted a weeklong experiment in an effort to provide a 'snapshot' baseline assessment of broadband conditions in Alaska.

Increasing numbers of states across the nation are seeking ways to map their own broadband Internet access. Why? The U.S. government has approved $350 million for mapping broadband as part of the economic stimulus plan.

Some groups are suggesting that stimulus funds only be provided to those states that have broadband maps already in place. Last fall, the U.S. Congress passed the Broadband Data Improvement Act, directing technology planners to perform broadband surveys in order to gather information about their areas. The law also defines expectations of what should be measured--particularly in unserved or underserved areas.

The primary purpose of the Alaska Broadband Speed Test data collection project is to better understand various aspects of broadband access methods available in Alaska. The Virginia Tech eCorridors Broadband speed-mapping tool was chosen to collect data for this effort because of its successful implementation since 2006 -- incorporating data from sources worldwide, and proven ability to collect the kind of data that serves Alaska’s purpose. The mapping website works by allowing users to mark their location on a customized Google map and then associate this marker with the results of the speed test. Unlike other broadband maps, the eCorridors map allows end users to document the actual performance of their broadband connection.

The Alaska Internet Speed Test was sponsored by various “Internet-for-Alaska” advocacy groups and conducted between March 30 and April 5, 2009. In order to encourage broad based participation in the speed test, the group disseminated postcards, posted to a website, distributed flyers and press releases, and produced regional radio broadcasts and public service announcements. Susan Warner, a member of the Northwest Arctic Broadband Task Force, stated, “The Virginia Tech eCorridors group was extraordinarily helpful in allowing us to use their data collection tool to gather some initial baseline data in a very intense one-month project.”

Alaska faces massive geographical challenges relating to broadband Internet access. Alaska’s State Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development has identified 294 Alaska communities with at least some access to the Internet. Throughout Alaska’s short one-week test, 284 responses were posted from at least 88 unique zip codes. “Besides the Google Map representation, the eCorridors group provided the backend analysis, particularly related to residential and small business consumers. This is particularly important as the Federal Broadband Improvement Act directs regional planning groups to reach out to these types of consumers,” said Warner.

“Although this was a successful initial research project, more data collection is required in order to develop a fully informed broadband map,” explains Brenda van Gelder, director of the eCorridors program. “The next step for the state would be to set up a sustainable broadband inventory and mapping system that incorporates data obtained from private sector providers.”

The Alaska project demonstrates an inexpensive and efficient method for broadband mapping that could be implemented by other states. The challenge lies in achieving sufficient promotion and participation in order to obtain a significant sample size.

According to van Gelder, any state can use the eCorridors map as it is – they can simply refer users to the map’s Web address and request that they submit data. State planners then simply request that eCorridors provide the backend data to them. This is available at no charge; provided that it can be used for Virginia Tech’s ongoing research in broadband, including potential publications and papers.

eCorridors can also tailor a map if a state desires basic customization. An example of this would be a K-12 speed test mapping project and the Virginia public libraries map designed for Virginia's secretary of technology, then Aneesh Chopra.

In cooperation with broadband providers, state leaders and planners can use information gathered by these tools and processes in order to address the areas that need attention and to maximize economic development strategies that rely on technology infrastructure.

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