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America’s broadband divide: Where do we stand in 2020?

Lisa Iscrupe

Jun 7, 2020 — 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.

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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.

One year later, America’s digital divide is suddenly more significant than ever before. The 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. 

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

The future is here

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.

Which areas are hardest hit?

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.

What can be done to accelerate broadband access?

Reevaluating the FCC data and redistributing funds for future broadband access across America will be a combined effort among more than one government agency. Immediate measures include, but are not limited to:

  • Collecting more specific data
  • Verifying data
  • Granting funds 
  • Maintaining a swift rate of broadband expansion

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

However, there have been strides made toward greater connectivity in just the past 12 months. 

➤ In August of 2019, the FCC introduced The Digital Opportunity Data Collection process. This will reduce inaccurate reporting by requiring internet service providers (ISPs) to submit geospatial maps of their coverage. 

➤ In December of 2019, the FCC rolled out their 5G Fast Plan for connectivity in both rural and urban areas.  

➤ Between August 2019 and February 2020, the FCC approved nearly $25 billion for expansion and subsidies to close the rural broadband gap.

And finally, according to Microsoft’s most recent report, the rural broadband divide has decreased somewhat. Microsoft’s 2020 annual report shows an additional 5.5 million people have gained access to broadband in the past year.

COVID-19 and the Keep Americans Connected pledge

No one could have predicted the unprecedented closing of millions of schools and businesses across America due to the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020. However, in response to students and teachers’ sudden transition to online learning to finish out the school year, several ISPs, including AT&T, Verizon, Xfinity and Spectrum, have taken the Keep Americans Connected pledge.

And who knows what other tech innovations could result from this time of crisis? Maybe COVID-19 will be another catalyst for rapid broadband expansion across the nation.


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

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