The problem of rural internet access: How AI is helping

By | 3 minute read | July 2, 2019

girl using laptop

Nineteen million people in the United States lack high-speed internet access. Many of these people live in rural areas, where fiber, coaxial cable, DSL or any other kind of broadband infrastructure is scarce or nonexistent.

This is a huge issue for rural community administrators and school officials who have been struggling to help their communities. For example, students can use the internet in school, but when they go home to do their homework, they have no access. At Revolution D, I’ve been working with these local officials to try to help them solve their problems.

Fixed wireless technology may be the answer

Technology has changed a lot in the past few years—what’s known as fixed wireless technology is becoming more widespread. With this technology, when a telecommunications tower is placed in the right spot, you can deliver internet service to a radius around the tower. That’s a game changer.

The question becomes one of tower placement. The FCC has a national broadband map going down to the census block level that shows where internet service exists and where it doesn’t. There are 11.8 million census blocks across the United States. To determine who has access and who doesn’t, we need to look at multiple different dimensions of that data—where the people are, and where the service is, as a start. There are other layers to consider as well. All these different layers can become too overwhelming for a human, like a county administrator, to process.

That’s where AI comes in.

AI helps determine tower placement

AI is perfect for studying the geospatial awareness of data. We are pulling together the AI power of IBM Watson and the mapping ability of Esri ArcGIS on the IBM Cloud to pull all the geographical and census data together. We’re already using Watson to deliver actionable intelligence to school superintendents.

The superintendent of the school district in Augusta, Georgia asked me to map where all 31,000 students in the district live. We had already determined that 3,988 of their students are without Wi-Fi at home. They can’t do their homework without the internet.

Using Watson and Esri technologies, I drilled down from the 3,988 students to the actual census blocks and plotted internet coverage for the superintendent. Now, instead of the unwieldy problem of 3,988 students, she can focus in on a particular street corner or neighborhood and understand specifically where the students have access and where they don’t. That’s where the city can target fixed wireless connectivity.

Maintaining tower equipment with IBM Maximo

What I want to do, with the power of IBM, is to scale this up so that I can deliver this kind of analysis to every school district in the United States. IBM Research is helping make it a reality. Working with them, we’ve been able to identify patterns or heat maps that reveal high densities of people with very poor connectivity. That’s a perfect pattern match for Watson to take on and really address. Now we’re looking to scale that up and use tools like IBM Watson Discovery to really map this out on a bigger scale.

Watson allows us to study this massive dataset and not only determine where telecom assets need to exist, but also, as population grows and changes, where we need to implement them in the future. That’s critical for community leaders who need to fix today’s problems while looking to the future to determine budgets and get public approval for infrastructure.

I’m also working with IBM Maximo software, because wherever there’s an asset, you need to maintain it. One of the reasons I selected Maximo is that it can talk to Watson. I’m working with a team of students at the University of South Carolina to help them get hands-on experience with Maximo. It won’t surprise you that students want to change the world. When they see that they have the chance to solve internet problems in communities, they’re inspired.

Watch Jim Stritzinger discuss how Revolution D is harnessing the power of AI to solve the problem of internet connectivity for millions of Americans: