America’s broadband divide: Shocking map shows over 162 million people still don’t have access to high-speed internet

Mark Prigg
MP
Mark Prigg
Apr 26, 2019
  • Official FCC maps estimate the number at 19 million Americans
  • New map was created by Microsoft using anonymized data from its users
  • Maps are used to determine who does and doesn’t get funding for broadband projects
  • Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has joined the calls to overhaul the maps

A shocking number of Americans still don’t have access to broadband internet, a new map created by Microsoft has shown.

The tech giant said it found that 162.8 million people aren’t using the internet at broadband speeds, a far higher figure than the 25 million the FCC estimates.

The tech giant used anonymized data from its millions of customers to estimate the real broadband divide in America.

“This lack of connectivity has a very real impact on economic well-being,” wrote John Kahan, chief data analytics officer at Microsoft, in a blog post.

“There are at least six independent studies that show that broadband has a direct impact on jobs and GDP growth.

“Our analysis shows that the counties with the highest unemployment also have the lowest broadband usage (and broadband access).”

The FCC maps, widely criticized as woefully inaccurate, are used to determine who does and doesn’t get funding to bring broadband to areas. In December, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the agency would investigate if carriers have submitted incorrect coverage data – but little has been heard since.

Now, an April 10th Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing has joined the calls to overhaul the FCC maps.

“In today’s digital economy, access to broadband is essential,” Chairman Roger Wicker said at the “Broadband Mapping: Challenges and Solutions” hearing.

This lack of connectivity has a very real impact on economic well-being.

John Kahan, chief data analytics officer at Microsoft

“It is through broadband that Americans can access jobs, education, and economic opportunities.

“Broadband also powers new industries and enables core economic sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation to be more efficient, productive, and competitive in the United States and around the globe.

“To close the digital divide, we need to have accurate broadband maps that tell us where broadband is available and where it is not available at certain speeds. This is critical because maps are used to inform federal agencies about where to direct broadband support. Flawed and inaccurate maps ultimately waste resources and stifle opportunities for economic development in our rural and underserved communities.’

“Improving the nation’s broadband maps starts with better coordination and information sharing among federal agencies responsible for administering broadband deployment programs.”

Microsoft said its analysis shows that the counties with the highest unemployment also have the lowest broadband usage (and broadband access). Click on the image to see a higher resolution version.

Why are the FCC maps so wrong?

“The FCC data is based on census blocks, the smallest unit used by the US Census Bureau — though in rural areas, these blocks can be quite large,” Microsoft’s John Kahan, explained.

“If broadband access is delivered to a single customer in that block, the entire block is counted as having service.”

The FCC builds its coverage map using data that internet service providers report twice a year via what’s called Form 477. However, Microsoft and Wicker say this form is too broad and that FCC mapping based on census blocks lacks specificity.

“Improving broadband maps also requires the collection of more granular and accurate data about existing broadband coverage, said Wicker. He also called for tough new rules on how the data is collected.

“In submitting information about where service could be provided, I am concerned that this information is represented on the FCC’s broadband availability maps with little verification about whether the service provider could or would actually provide the service at the advertised speed.

“Incorporating data about where service could be provided may ultimately lead to overstated broadband coverage and availability on maps.”

Which areas are worst hit?

Rural areas are hardest hit across every state, but some urban areas are also impacted.

Microsoft said: “In our home state of Washington, the FCC data indicates that 100 percent of Ferry County residents have access to broadband.

“When we spoke to local officials, they indicated that very few residents in this rural county had access and those that did were using broadband in business. Our data bears this out, showing that only 2 percent of Ferry County is using broadband. There is a Ferry County in every state. In Mississippi, the FCC indicates that broadband is available to 97.1 percent of people in Tishomingo County, while our data shows that only 3.6 percent of the county uses the internet at broadband speeds.

“This is not just a rural issue, either. In more urban states, like Massachusetts, the issue persists. The FCC indicates that broadband is available to 86.3 percent of the people in Berkshire County, while our data shows that 39.4 percent of the county is using the internet at broadband speeds.

Mike McCormick, the President of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, worked to create a ‘real coverage’ map of Mississippi.

“Specific to my home state, Mississippi has the lowest percentage of fixed broadband availability in the U.S., with 2.2 million citizens, or 72 percent of the Mississippi population, with access to the internet at broadband speeds (25 Mbps / 3 Mbps).

“This data was reported in the FCC’s 2018 Broadband Deployment Report.

“However, when looking at third-party private research data put together by Microsoft and other groups, they report that only 487,000 citizens, or 16 percent of the Mississippi population, use the internet at broadband speeds.

“This 56-percentage point difference in broadband availability marks a substantial gap in the perceived number of citizens able to participate in a growing digital economy.

The Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation created this map that uses public data from the FCC, Microsoft and American Farm Bureau Federation to calculate the difference between FCC usage percentages compared to actual usage percentages in Mississippi.

“Illustrating these discrepancies further, according to the FCC my home county, Jefferson County, is listed at 41 percent usage while the Microsoft data shows it at 5.6 percent, which is a difference of -35 percent.’

What can be done?

Chip Strange, the CEO of speed testing firm Ookla told the committee ‘Improving broadband maps demands more aspirational thinking, private-sector innovation and yes, considerably more funding.’

“We need to embrace and explore diverse perspectives, from the industry, the federal government and the states, and run pilot programs to test different data collection options unbound by regulatory lag,” he said.

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