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America’s broadband divide: Where do we stand?

Lisa Iscrupe

May 4, 2021 — 4 min read

Microsoft analyzed user data and estimates 162.8 million people aren't using the internet at broadband speeds, a far higher figure than the 25 million the FCC claims.

In 2019, Microsoft released a study showing how many people in America were still without broadband internet. The results were shocking. The tech giant found that 162.8 million people weren’t using the internet at broadband speeds, a far higher figure than the 25 million the FCC estimated.

Two years later, America’s digital divide is suddenly more significant than ever before after the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak triggered a rapid, systemic chain of events. In just a few short weeks, nearly every business, school and government agency switched to partial or total telecommuting. 

So where does that leave the millions of people without adequate internet access?

The future is now

In this foreshadowing statement from a 2019 blog post, Microsoft chief data analytics officer John Kahan wrote, “This lack of connectivity has a very real impact on economic well-being.” 

“There are at least six independent studies that show that broadband has a direct impact on jobs and GDP growth,” said Kahan. “Our analysis shows that the counties with the highest unemployment also have the lowest broadband usage (and broadband access).”

Take a look at the vast difference in broadband availability according to the FCC vs. the Microsoft data. According to the maps below, there could be as many as 138.1M people lacking broadband access unaccounted for by the FCC.

Why does accurate broadband reporting matter?

The FCC maps have larger repercussions than simply unreliable data. The FCC maps, widely criticized as woefully inaccurate, are also used to determine who does and doesn’t get funding to bring broadband to areas. In other words, if the FCC map claims your area has internet access, then your county, city or state government will have a harder time getting the money it needs to expand broadband systems.

“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,” said Kahan.

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

In December of 2018, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the agency would investigate if carriers have submitted incorrect coverage data. Four months later, an April 10th Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation joined the calls to overhaul the FCC maps.

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 wrong?

There are several contributing factors as to why the FCC data is so misleading, according to Kahan and Roger Wicker, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. These reasons include:

  • The FCC data is based on census blocks, which can be large areas.
  • If a single customer within a census block has broadband access, the entire block is counted as having service.
  • Existing broadband coverage needs to be collected on a more granular level. 
  • Little verification regarding data about whether a service provider actually provides services at the advertised speeds.

What is being done in 2021 to accelerate broadband access?

➤ In March 2021, FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel addressed the agency’s updated strategy to create new broadband maps. With the Broadband Data Act now funded, she announced the formation of the Broadband Data Taskforce.

➤ That same month, the FCC launched the Broadband Data Collection program as part of the new strategy.  A consumer-facing webpage explains the FCC’s program and provides links to resources including a “share your broadband experience” option. The page also highlights milestones and provides updates “for consumers, state, local, and Tribal government entities, and other industry stakeholders.”

“Far too many Americans are left behind in access to jobs, education, and healthcare if they do not have access to broadband,” said Rosenworcel. “Collecting data from consumers who are directly affected by the lack of access to broadband will help inform the FCC’s mapping efforts and future decisions about where service is needed.”

➤ To combat the lack of internet access among low-income households, the FCC also launched the Emergency Broadband Benefit program in April 2021, which will provide qualifying households with a $50 credit on their internet bill each month. Applications open May 12, 2021.

Which areas are hardest hit by lack of internet access?

Rural areas are impacted the most across every state, but some urban areas are also affected. For example, Microsoft said: “In our home state of Washington, the FCC data indicates that 100% 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% of Ferry County is using broadband. There is a Ferry County in every state.”

However, similar overreporting of broadband availability is happening in more urban areas as well, making this more than just a rural issue.

Stay up-to-date with more broadband news at the Resource Center and by following our experts on Facebook and Twitter.

Lisa Iscrupe

Written by:

Lisa Iscrupe

Writer, Broadband & Data Content

Lisa uses years of experience in sales and customer service for internet-TV providers to inform her writing on broadband. Her work has been referenced by CNN and other national sources. In Lisa’s Words: Ever… Read more

Trey Paul

Edited by:

Trey Paul

Editor, Broadband Content

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