Expanding Access to Fiber-optic Internet in Massachusetts

2/2022 – 3/2022

Introduction

As the world continues to become more technologically dependent, it becomes more important for people to be able to have access to high-speed internet; however, despite this importance, there are many places that lack high-speed internet—including in Massachusetts. For this project, I estimated the best way to expand internet infrastructure to maximize the number of people who would benefit while minimizing cost.
To accomplish this, I focused on the location and distribution of fiber-optic internet cables as they are one of the best ways to provide reliable high-speed internet connections. By comparing this information with population distribution, I determined areas that would benefit the most from gaining additional internet infrastructure. Finally, I performed a network analysis to estimate the most efficient way to connect these places to existing internet infrastructure. While this is a complex problem, I relied on a few simplifying assumptions:
  1. In Massachusetts, when the state builds or repairs major roads, they add fiber-optic cable to them; hence, I estimated the location of current infrastructure by assuming that it is located within the major roads of census blocks that contain fiber-optic infrastructure.
  2. Along these lines, I restricted my predictions to only add new fiber-optic cables in roads. In doing so, I will also prioritize adding cables to larger roads over smaller roads.
  3. I ignored the finer details of internet distribution and assume that, if a census block has fiber-optic cables in it, the whole block has access to high-speed internet.

Research Questions

For this project, I developed three research questions to help guide my work:
  1. Are there places in Massachusetts that lack high-speed internet?
  2. Where is Massachusetts’ current fiber-optic infrastructure?
  3. What is the best way to bring fiber-optic internet to places that lack high-speed connections?
I chose these questions as they allowed me to identify if there was a problem (research question one), the current state of the infrastructure (research question two), and how to address the problem (research question three). In the following sections, I describe the methods and results for each of these questions.

Are there Places in Massachusetts that Lack High-speed Internet?

Using the FCC broadband dataset, I was able to determine the maximum advertised download speed for each census block in Massachusetts. I then used a table join to associate these speeds with Massachusetts’ latest census dataset (which was from 2010). From this, I found a disparity between download speeds across the state. While most census blocks (91,476) had maximum download speeds of over 800 mbps, 2,662 census blocks (containing a total of 97,583 people) had a maximum download speed of less than 50 mbps, and most of these census blocks were in rural parts of western Massachusetts. Comparing these census blocks to the Environmental Justice regions, I found that census blocks within Environmental Justice areas are more likely to have high-speed internet than the rest of the state (98.3% vs. 96.7%).

Where is Massachusetts’ current Fiber-optic Infrastructure?

While I could not find a public dataset containing the locations of the fiber-optic cables, I estimated the location of the fiber-optic cables as, in Massachusetts, when the government builds or repairs major roads, they frequently add fiber-optic cable to them. In addition, the FCC broadband dataset reports what kind of infrastructure each internet service provider offers in each census block. Thus, by performing a spatial join between the center of these census blocks and the nearest major road (as provided by a MassDOT dataset), I found 10,275 km of roads that I estimate have fiber-optic cables in them. These roads are primarily in the east of Massachusetts with a few connecting to larger cities in the west (such as Worcester and Springfield).

What is the Best Way to bring Fiber-optic Internet to Areas that Lack High-speed connections?

Having found the areas of Massachusetts that lack high-speed internet and having estimated the location of the fiber-optic cables in Massachusetts, I used ArcGIS to determine the least cost path between the existing internet infrastructure and the all of the areas that lacked high-speed internet. To do this, I started the path at Lynn, Massachusetts (as two of the transatlantic internet cables are located there—meaning they must have significant fiber-optic internet infrastructure there). I then forced the paths to follow the major road network where the cost of moving along a road was very large except for the roads that I had predicted already had fiber-optic cables (in which case, the cost of movement was near zero). From this, I found that 858 km of fiber-optic cables would be needed to bring high-speed internet to the places in Massachusetts that lack it, and that these extensions would rely on 2,681 km of existing fiber-optic cables to reach Lynn.

Limitations

  • Lack of accurate data: As I could not obtain datasets with the exact locations of Massachusetts fiber-optic cables, I had to resort to estimating their locations based on the roads. While this has a degree of accuracy, this kind of estimate is far from perfect as it assumes that all fiber-optic cables run through the roads, and that the fiber-optic cable must be present in the entirety of whichever road runs closest to the center of a census block that has fiber-optic cables in it. In addition, the FCC’s broadband dataset might not be perfectly accurate in reporting internet speeds and infrastructure locations.
  • Simplification of a complex system: In the real world, determining the best way to expand the fiber-optic network is more complicated than considering the shortest path between existing infrastructure and the places that lack high-speed internet. For example, there may be places where expanding the infrastructure is less feasible than in others. In addition, one would have to take things like network congestion into account.
  • To run these calculations, I had to convert the road network between vector and raster data which likely resulted in decreased precision for the exact location and layout of the road network.
  • Ethics of the information: This project only looks at the maximum advertised download speed in each census block, and, while this is an important metric to consider—after all, ideally everyone would have access to high-speed internet—this tells us nothing about the affordability of the internet, or the internet service provider’s ability to deliver their advertised speeds. Along these lines, the project could have unintended consequences. For instance, it is possible that connecting a census block to the fiber-optic network would result in the existing low-speed internet service providers going out of business—limiting the people who can access the internet as the owner of the fiber-optic cable may charge more for a connection to the internet.

Conclusion

From this project, I found that there is a large disparity in the maximum internet download speeds offered in Massachusetts with 2,662 census blocks (which contain a total of 97,583 people) having a maximum advertised internet speed of less than 50 mbps. Of note, these census blocks are not correlated with Environmental Justice populations, but instead rural areas of the state (98.3% of Environmental Justice regions have high-speed internet as opposed to the state average of 96.7%). By estimating the shortest path along major roads between these census blocks and existing internet infrastructure, I found that it would take approximately 858 km of fiber-optic cables to connect these regions—which is, on average, 8.97 meters of fiber-optic cable per person. However, due to limitations of this project, further work would be needed to determine the viability of these results.

See Also

For the whole report (which includes my methodology), please contact me.

Sources

Commonwealth of Massachusetts. (2012). MassGIS data: 2010 U.S. census [Dataset]. https://www.mass.gov/info-details/massgis-data-2010-us-census
Commonwealth of Massachusetts. (2018). MassGIS data: Massachusetts department of transportation (MassDOT) roads [Dataset]. https://www.mass.gov/info-details/massgis-data-massachusetts-department-of-transportation-massdot-roads
Commonwealth of Massachusetts. (2021). MassGIS data: 2020 environmental justice populations [Dataset]. https://www.mass.gov/info-details/massgis-data-2020-environmental-justice-populations
Fixed broadband deployment data: December 2020 | data | federal communications commission (Version 1). (2020, October 14). [Dataset]. Federal Communications Commission. https://opendata.fcc.gov/Wireline/Fixed-Broadband-Deployment-Data-December-2020/hicn-aujz