Assessing Wisconsin's Digital Divide With GIS

As the pandemic forced many to work, learn, or even run a small business from home, the digital divide created a barrier keeping underserved and unserved communities from excelling.

To address this divide, the state of Wisconsin expanded on its initiative to make broadband available for all. Governor Tony Evers declared 2021 the year of broadband access and set a goal to ensure that all residents have equitable access to high-speed internet within the next few years.

Evers launched a task force on broadband access to make more data-driven decisions on how to expand connectivity — including the use of over $100 million in federal funding — and improve broadband affordability and adoption.

Wisconsin Uses GIS for Broadband Data

The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC) has already gathered statewide coverage data with geographic information system (GIS) technology to help decision-makers determine where support is most needed. Nearly half of Wisconsin's internet providers contribute directly to this effort.

In addition to this valuable input, PSC knew it needed data points from Wisconsin's 5.8 million residents to establish a more holistic understanding of internet access and use. By continuing its geographic approach, the PSC would be able to analyze regional needs and overlay socioeconomic data to understand broadband access through an equity lens.

The PSC recognized that to collect this data, the commission would need the support and assistance of the local governments. Over the last few years, some Wisconsin counties and communities have sporadically collected broadband surveys. These surveys were rarely coordinated for interoperability and results were seldom distributed to the PSC for analysis. Of the 72 counties in Wisconsin, PSC recognized that not all jurisdictions had the bandwidth or resources to set up their own data collection and analysis.

"We knew we needed a tool that would allow us to pinpoint the exact communities that needed attention. We also knew we needed a platform that would allow us to quickly build out a robust survey. We determined that ArcGIS Survey123 served as a reliable and user-friendly foundation that would allow us to accomplish this."
— Colter Sikora, GIS lead, Public Service Commission of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Boosts Broadband With GIS

To ensure that people in rural areas were equipped to perform their own data collection, Sikora and PSC used ArcGIS Survey123 to create a reproducible survey for all jurisdictions. This effort warranted having a standardized survey to deploy across all counties and cities. By empowering each jurisdiction across Wisconsin, the state would have a more accurate picture of where broadband access was needed most.

In mid-February 2022, the state launched the Wisconsin Internet Self-Report (WISER) survey using ArcGIS Survey123 to gather internet speed tests and accessibility data that would advise decision-makers to make the most equitable decisions for their communities.

In the survey, Wisconsin residents are prompted to report their location; the type of location such as a home, business, or school; and internet service quality. Respondents are also asked to indicate their age and ethnicity as well as whether they were renters or homeowners and whether they resided on a Native American reservation.

The final step was for respondents to run an Ookla Speedtest, which captures internet download and upload speed measured in megabytes per second. To maintain individuals' privacy, all results were made anonymously and kept confidential.

This initiative provides a way for the state to capture accurate data for the first time on an individual level so that the data can be reviewed over time — especially data from residents in rural areas. Once residents submit their responses, the data will be displayed on public maps and featured in reports to help decision-makers visualize the data geographically and plan future broadband deployment and programming.

Instructions for the WISER survey.

Instructions for the WISER survey.

Tackling Broadband Disparities With a Data-driven Approach

Wisconsin's initiative works to prioritize three key factors that staff call the 'Three A's': accessibility, affordability, and adoption. Before seeing the data, Sikora and his team knew that there were disparities in the 'Three A's' throughout the state, but they needed data from WISER and other sources to know more specifically which areas needed the most attention. They continue to gather authoritative data to help the task force and fellow stakeholders see where funding could have the most impact.

  • Wisconsin defines accessibility as a household, business, or location that can connect to a reliable internet connection. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reported that 6.8 percent of the population in Wisconsin lacks access to at least one fixed broadband service with effective speed. Using data to further understand accessibility allows the state to ask questions such as:
    • Do the majority of those with a lack of access reside on Native American reservations?
    • Are rural areas equipped with the infrastructure to provide high-speed internet?
  • Wisconsin defines affordability as the presence of internet service options that are financially available to each household. Using data to further understand accessibility allowed the state to ask questions such as:
    • Are internet service providers in Wisconsin providing accessible costs?
    • Is pricing transparency provided to all residents?
    • Are there pricing disparities for residents of different demographics?
  • Wisconsin defines adoption as the process of using the internet to holistically improve the well-being of people in Wisconsin. Using data to further understand accessibility allows the state to ask questions such as:
    • Where are there higher concentrations of residents who lack digital literacy?
    • Where is the funding needed most to support digital services to access telehealth or work or learn from home?

Approaching data collection through the lens of the 'Three A's' allows PSC to understand where communities need additional programming and could use federal funding.

Since the governor's launch of the task force on broadband access, GIS professionals across the state have begun to team up with PSC to launch their surveys using PSC's template. The accessibility and user-friendly nature of ArcGIS Survey123 have allowed GIS professionals to replicate the WISER survey on a smaller scale.

View of Wisconsin's Broadband Map

View of Wisconsin's Broadband Map

PSC Uses ArcGIS Survey123 for Broadband Accessibility

By using ArcGIS Survey123, PSC set the foundation for other communities to duplicate the survey and add locally specific questions. This standard state survey template ensures that smaller localities gather and provide data that is compatible with the statewide WISER survey data. This compatibility allows the PSC to better understand the evolving nature of the state's broadband needs. PSC is also able to keep WISER available indefinitely for people to complete, allowing for analysis of changes over time.

In collaboration with the task force, PSC is on a path to break down barriers to broadband access. While the lack of broadband access to all residents is a complex challenge, staff are using GIS to compile authoritative and useful data to see where allocation of resources would have the most impact and empower all residents to reach their full potential in work, business, education, and more. Decision-makers will have even greater confidence that they are prioritizing investments in the communities that need it most.

"We were able to stand up our survey in conjunction with broadband experts and advocates in the state because of the accessibility of ArcGIS Survey123. As a follow-up, our state's broadband mapping team will be able to work with survey results and our Wisconsin Broadband Map to better inform community stakeholders where to invest federal and other broadband funding," said Sikora.

Top image: Detail of Wisconsin's Broadband Map

About the author
Keith Cooke is the Global Industry Manager for Planning & Community Development at Esri.

August 1, 2022

By Keith Cooke