New app aims to bridge digital divide



WASHINGTON, D.C. — With the simple push of a button on a smart phone screen, residents of Shelby County can help extend broadband coverage to rural areas, bridging the digital divide.

The National Association of Counties (NACo), the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), and Rural LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation) have partnered to address the critical need for affordable high-speed internet for rural communities across the country.

Together, the three organizations developed a mobile app that gives mobile phone users the power to accurately identify areas with low or no internet connectivity and share that information to push for change.

Armed with that data, the organizations will advocate for adequate funding for broadband infrastructure across the country. Shelby County is a member of the National Association of Counties.

“TestIT” (available for iOS and Android) uses an open-source sampling tool developed by Measurement Lab (MLab) to aggregate broadband speeds from mobile device users across the country. Accurate data ensures that broadband infrastructure receives the investments needed to provide internet access to rural communities. This partnership between NACo, RCAP and Rural LISC shows how organizations working together for rural communities can have a greater impact.

“We know we need better broadband in our community as we all encounter dead spots,” said County Commissioner Julie Ehemann. “We need to be able to prove that current maps are not accurate in order to qualify for funding that would extend broadband to these areas.”

NACo Executive Director Matthew Chase stressed the importance of high-speed internet when it comes to connecting people and places, both locally and globally, and highlighted its ability to allow competition in today’s economy.

“Outdated broadband mapping techniques limit Congress’ ability to accurately identify and allocate broadband resources across much of America,” Chase continued. “This mobile app will help identify gaps in broadband coverage and help guide federal, state and local decision-making.”

Lack of reliable broadband is a major economic barrier and an issue of socioeconomic equality. Our lives and futures have become inextricably tied to technology. Without access to high-speed internet, many of our rural communities are becoming increasingly isolated and left behind.

A 2018 study conducted by Microsoft concluded that 19 million rural Americans do not use broadband, largely due to a lack of access. For these small communities, broadband can serve as a lifeline, connecting students to online degrees and connecting sick patients to medical consultation locally unavailable.

“Rural LISC’s work is grounded in supporting and amplifying the voices of our grassroots partners. They have consistently raised the connectivity gap as a major economic barrier,” said Suzanne Anarde, LISC Vice President and Rural LISC Director. “The TestIT app provides a platform to amplify not only their voices, but also the voices of every rural resident. It is our hope that through our partnership with NACo and RCAP, we are empowering users to advocate for the future of their families and their communities.”

High-speed internet is also consistently voiced as a top challenge facing small businesses in rural America and stifles entrepreneurship by limiting the ability of individuals to take on independent work. In this economy, broadband is critical to building resilient and future ready rural communities.

The app allows users to be active participants in the national effort to bring awareness about the lack of high-speed internet connectivity in communities across the country. Within the app, users can test their broadband speed from anywhere. Snapshots of individual tests will be collected within a database, allowing partners to analyze connectivity data across the country.

This data will bridge the gap between rural residents’ everyday experience and connectivity data provided by internet service providers, which is often inaccurate and inflated.

“This app is an exciting opportunity for us to help provide insight into true accessibility of broadband in rural communities,” said RCAP Executive Director Nathan Ohle. “Partnering with NACo and LISC allows us to build a network of users from across the country, as well as showing the critical importance of building partnerships to affect change at the local level. This initiative will shed light on communities that are often overlooked or underserved and identify opportunities to better leverage critical federal resources.”