The Greenbank observatory is the largest steerable radio telescope in the world. Utilizing meter to millimeter wavelengths, and a wide operating range, the radio telescope is situated nicely to be able to gather information from far across the galaxy.
So, what does the radio telescope that discovered the largest neutron star ever detected have to do with internet access? Quite a lot, actually. The observatory is situated in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, which also happens to be home to some of the slowest internet speeds in the country. This slow-down is due in large part to the National Radio Quiet Zone (“NRQZ”), which is a 13,000 square mile area established in 1958 to protect the Green Bank telescope and another one in Sugar Grove, West Virginia, from interference that may skew the data collection.
The zone is divided into two major portions, within ten square miles of the telescope all wifi, cell phones, radios, and microwaves are prohibited. Outside of that area there is a rigorous application process for providers that collects information on radio service, proposed frequency or frequencies, proposed signal bandwidth(s), antenna location in latitude and longitude to nearest second, antenna site ground elevation above mean sea level, and antenna height above ground level. Each of these criteria is intended to help determine if the proposed service could in any way interfere with the operations of the Greenbank telescope.
As COVID-19 has forced many to work and learn from home, high-speed reliable internet access has become a lynchpin in society. In Pocahontas county, nearly 3 in 10 households lack access to a broadband internet subscription, and 1 in 4 lack access to a computer according to the Census Bureau. Students in this area largely rely on dial-up or dsl connections, which are monumentally slower than their fiber or cable counterparts.
Students in Pocahontas county, and other municipalities nationwide, are now forced into e-learning from home and find themselves in a precarious position where they no longer have access to their school’s fixed connections. Many are simply unable to submit multi-page assignments over their home dial-up connections. Teachers at Pocahontas County High School, for example, are concerned that their students’ poor performance is not indicative of their intelligence, but a reflection of the unavoidable problem – unreliable access to broadband.
Broadband deployment is essential to help communities such as Pocahontas County remain connected. Slow deployment, inaccurate data, and other obstacles to adoption have prevented countless residents from full participation in a digital society. Pocahontas County also tells the story of the need for technological neutrality. While some rural communities prioritize wireless access as a means to connect their communities, a wired solution is far more appropriate in Pocahontas County..
Understanding who is connected and who is not is key to addressing this issue. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 42.2% of consumers in Pocahontas County have access to a fixed broadband connection at the national minimum speeds of 25 download and 3 upload. However, the Commission’s data often overstates availability, and leads to confusion as to who, in reality, is connected. When there are already barriers to deployment that stem form legal and technological factors, the Commission should not add difficulty by claiming that people have access to fixed connections when they simply do not.
Collecting accurate mapping data is supremely important to ensure that funding and deployment efforts are targeted at those who need them the most. In an area where technology options are limited, overstating broadband availability means the difference between getting connected or being overlooked by providers and deployment incentive programs.
At a time where internet access is essential, we must find a way to connect communities in the greatest need, even if those communities require substantial work or cost to bring online. As one monument to scientific progress scans the stars for life, we should undertake the mammoth task to accurately map the unserved and underserved communities across West Virginia and the nation. Inaccurate mapping data only slows broadband deployment and ensures that the digital divide and homework gap remain firmly in place for those in vulnerable communities.