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A Tale of Three Datasets: Characterizing Mobile Broadband Access in the U.S.

By Tarun Mangla, Esther Showalter, Vivek Adarsh, Kipp Jones, Morgan Vigil-Hayes, Elizabeth Belding, Ellen Zegura

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 65 No. 3, Pages 67-74
10.1145/3462672

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Affordable, quality Internet access is critical for full participation in the 21st century economy, educational system, and government.23 Mobile broadband can be achieved through commercial Long-Term Evolution (LTE) cellular networks, which are a proven means of expanding access11 but are often concentrated in urban areas—leaving economically marginalized and sparsely populated areas underserved.1 The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) incentivizes LTE operators that serve rural areas3,22 and maintains transparency by releasing maps from each operator showing geographic areas of coverage.9 Recently, third parties have challenged the veracity of these maps, claiming they over-represent true coverage and can discourage much-needed investment.

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However, most of these claims are either mainly qualitative in nature or are focused on limited areas, where a few dedicated researchers can collect controlled coverage measurements (through wardriving, for instance).12,24,25 As dependence on mobile broadband connectivity increases, especially in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, mechanisms that quantitatively validate FCC coverage datasets at scale are becoming acutely necessary to evaluate and direct resources toward Internet access deployment efforts.15,18 This is a technology policy issue which carries equity and fairness implications for society as a whole.

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