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The Rockefeller Foundation Collaborates With Universities to Close America’s Broadband Equity Gap

Penn State and CellWatch, a collaboration between Georgia Tech, UC Santa Barbara, and Northern Arizona University, to collect accurate data on broadband deficits and help communities qualify for federal funding

NEW YORK | February 28, 2023 ― The Rockefeller Foundation announced $1 million in funding between The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) and CellWatch – a collaboration between the Georgia Institute of Technology, University of California, Santa Barbara, and Northern Arizona University – to launch complimentary initiatives aimed at closing America’s broadband equity gap. Over the next year, Penn State, through its extension organization, will develop an accessible national map of fixed broadband access, modeling support, and education tools; and CellWatch will develop a mobile application and machine learning algorithm to measure and make public mobile broadband availability data. Together, these initiatives will help the estimated 21 million Americans mis-identified in federal broadband maps, who are disproportionately from low-income, rural, and BIPOC communities, apply for funding and increase equitable access to broadband services.

“There are millions of people in the U.S. without consistent broadband coverage. In the 21st century, if you don’t have access to broadband, you don’t have access to the full range of information and opportunities that should be available to you. Unfortunately, it’s hard to address this problem because we don’t have the data to show us where there are gaps in broadband coverage and performance. This prevents communities from getting the federal funding they deserve.” said Zia Khan, Senior Vice President of Innovation at The Rockefeller Foundation. “The Rockefeller Foundation is proud to work with Penn State and the CellWatch team to close these gaps and help ensure that all Americans can leverage the benefits of broadband.”

Current estimates show that Federal Communications Commissions’ (FCC) maps measuring broadband coverage significantly overestimates the number of Americans with access to high-speed connectivity. According to Broadband Now, that has left an estimated 21 million Americans  out of current U.S. federal broadband coverage plans and millions are incorrectly designated as “served,” preventing them from receiving the $65 billion available through Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding to improve broadband access. Reports reveal that a mere 10% increase in broadband access could add ~175,000 more jobs and $37.2 billion to the economy per year.

“Penn State Extension has a long track record of disseminating research-based knowledge to help residents navigate the issues and opportunities of new technology and connected digital infrastructure,” said Brent Hales, Director of Penn State Extension. “With this partnership, we seek to develop new mapping and spatial analysis tools that inform equitable distribution of FCC BEAD funding to communities nationwide and enable them to estimate the costs of fiber deployment to homes and businesses, emphasizing underserved markets. Our similar work in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission already has helped the state secure almost $369 million in federal broadband funding, which will enable up to 327,000 Pennsylvanians to gain high-speed internet access.”

“We are exceptionally grateful to The Rockefeller Foundation for their support of this project,” said Dr. Ellen Zegura, Regents and Fleming Professor in Computer Science. “CellWatch will provide communities with the ability to measure and map their mobile broadband connectivity and to challenge the accuracy of broadband provider data at the federal level. Ultimately better quality data will contribute to data-driven decisions about expanding Internet access to reach areas of greatest need.”

The Rockefeller Foundation is collaborating with Penn State to:

  • Develop a national fixed broadband map to identify and prioritize underserved communities and populations for broadband deployment and utilization effort.
  • Implement first-of-its-kind modeling to support local and regional data-driven decisions about broadband deployment.
  • Design a Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) project map layer to assist state and federal legislators better understand the unserved and underserved areas of their district and the potential for BEAD funding.
  • Deploy a team of educators and communicators to raise awareness and adoption of the new mapping tools to support their local community.

The Rockefeller Foundation is collaborating with CellWatch to:

  • Harness the power of machine learning algorithms for predicting mobile broadband performance from public datasets.
  • Design a new open-source mobile application, “CellWatch,” for Android phones that will allow users to take measurements of network performance and view maps of broadband quality.
  • Make CellWatch data public to help communities challenge current provider claims of broadband coverage, which often go uncontested and can be inaccurate, and apply for FCC investment in broadband.
  • Launch a new interactive dashboard and map to support communities as they organize measurement campaigns and help them achieve more equitable broadband access.

About The Rockefeller Foundation

The Rockefeller Foundation is a pioneering philanthropy built on collaborative partnerships at the frontiers of science, technology, and innovation that enable individuals, families, and communities to flourish. We work to promote the well-being of humanity and make opportunity universal and sustainable. Our focus is on scaling renewable energy for all, stimulating economic mobility, and ensuring equitable access to health care and nutritious food. For more information, sign up for our newsletter at and follow us on Twitter @RockefellerFdn.

About Penn State Extension

Penn State Extension is dedicated to delivering science-based information and solutions to people, businesses and communities. In support of Penn State’s land-grant mission, extension programs promote a vibrant food and fiber system, a clean environment, and a healthier population in Pennsylvania and beyond. With support from federal, state and county governments, the organization has a tradition of bringing unbiased, research-based information and support to the citizens of Pennsylvania for more than 100 years.

About CellWatch

The CellWatch team spans three public universities, Georgia Tech in the southeast, Northern Arizona University in the southwest, and the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) in Southern California. All three universities embrace the mission of serving the public good through research, education, and outreach. The CellWatch collaborative team has a long history of working together on issues of digital equity and broadband internet access for rural and tribal regions.

Media Contacts:

Wyatt Goodwin
The Rockefeller Foundation
+1 212 852 0000

Chuck Gill
Penn State Extension

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