My ongoing quest to better understand rural broadband data and realities

By Wayne Kelly

June 24, 2019

On June 3rd, I was honored to be invited to the R2B2 (Regional & Rural Broadband) workshop on Broadband Analytics at the University of Guelph. I have been interested in working on understanding rural broadband connectivity, speeds, and utilization rates since the early 2000s and as a result, I was very excited to take part and to find out the latest on rural broadband data in Canada.

The workshop consisted of two distinct parts related to rural broadband data. The first focus for the workshop was an overview and discussion of M-Lab. M-Lab is a speed test and data repository that lets you analyze and visualize rural broadband connectivity data! This tool is a great resource that needs to be shared and understood on a wider basis to help inform decision-makers about the realities of rural broadband. One main note is that that you need to have M-Lab speed tests conducted locally to make sure there is enough data to use the tool. This can be a challenge in rural communities with low populations or if M-Lab wasn’t used in that community to run tests regularly. R2B2 provides a great model for addressing this rural challenge by integrating M-Lab tests into their household surveying — this ensures that data is being generated locally in the region being studied.

The second focus for the workshop was to share and discuss rural broadband initiatives and experiences from across Canada. A great discussion took place at this workshop on a wide range of rural broadband topics and examples that ranged from connectivity levels to digital skills and use. The stakeholders at this workshop were a diverse group and included fellow academics and researchers focused on rural broadband, NGOs and government agency representatives tasked with measuring/supporting rural broadband, and municipal and regional practitioners who were setting up networks. This diverse group had several discussions throughout the day and the ideas discussed were even more valuable than the training session!

Some of the key points raised during the second session include:

- The general consensus amongst those involved in setting up rural broadband was that individual household and premise data are needed for measuring broadband. Knowing broadband availability at the community level is not sufficient for planning broadband projects or understanding rural broadband use.

- Rural broadband stakeholders need to create more complete and specific narratives around the importance of connectivity. The group agreed that the full impacts and benefits of being connected are not regularly raised.

- A growing amount of broadband-related data is available for municipal and rural stakeholders. Rural broadband stakeholders need to better understand the opportunity and relevance of this data and raise capacity to use it effectively

- There are great examples of rural broadband initiatives going on in Canada with few resources that are documenting them. As a result, it is difficult to find out more rural broadband projects in Canada. Firstmile.ca is an exception and is very informative for exploring and learning from indigenous broadband initiatives. A key takeaway and action item from the workshop was the need to continue networking and sharing rural broadband news, research and projects.

All in all, the day was a great opportunity for learning and networking. I will continue to explore and try out M-Lab for rural broadband data in my research and community projects. I will also continue to work with R2B2 and other stakeholders to stay connected, stay informed and to keep sharing rural broadband research and knowledge!

Rural Development Institute

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Established by Brandon University, RDI is an academic research center focusing on issues that effect rural communities. Visit https://www.brandonu.ca/rdi/