We have an internet problem in this country. We just don’t really know how bad.
The Federal Communications Commission’s broadband maps are notoriously inaccurate. Earlier this year, Microsoft conducted an analysis of broadband data in the U.S. and concluded that 162.8 million people — nearly half of the U.S. population — aren’t getting minimum broadband speeds, defined as 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. This sits in stark contrast to the 21.3 million the FCC reported earlier this year.
For context, 25 Mbps is around what the average house in Armenia gets — good for 93rd in the world. It’s not the highest bar to clear, but most of our country is not meeting it.
There’s some gray area here — the FCC reports access to broadband, while Microsoft’s data refers to what people are actually getting — but the gap is still too enormous to ignore.
On this discrepancy, Microsoft wrote that it “leaves us with the unescapable conclusion that today there exists no accurate, comprehensive and public estimate of broadband coverage in the United States.”
Rural residents don’t have access to broadband
Wherever the real numbers lie, they all tell the same story: rural Americans don’t have the same access to broadband as those in urban areas.
According to the FCC’s latest report, 26.4% of rural residents and 32.1% of people living on tribal lands did not have access to minimum broadband speeds (25 Mbps), compared to 1.7% in urban areas.
It’s not just about access, either. When it comes to who’s really using the internet, rural Americans are far behind their urban and suburban counterparts. Only about 63% have any broadband connection at all.
And when they do have broadband, it tends to be at much lower speeds. According to a study from the Pennsylvania State University, the FCC shows 100% availability of broadband speeds in Pennsylvania, but few people are actually getting them.
“At the county level, the 2018 data showed that there were 0 (zero) counties in Pennsylvania where at least 50% of the populace received ‘broadband’ connectivity,” the study says, adding that “connectivity speeds were substantially slower in rural counties than in urban counties.”
Even back in 2017, FCC chairman Ajit Pai didn’t mince words on this subject: “If you live in rural America, there’s a better than a 1-in-4 chance that you lack access to fixed high-speed broadband at home, compared to a 1-in-50 probability in our cities.”
Why is there such a gap between access and adoption?
It appears that even in areas where broadband speeds are available, not many households are actually reaching them.
In a recent Pew Research Center survey, only 22% of respondents said they don’t have broadband because it’s not available. That was lower than the number who said “smartphone does everything I need,” “monthly cost of home broadband subscription is too expensive” and “have other options for internet access outside the home.”
According to the Washington Post, that translates to between 4.5 and 7.5 million households who don’t have access. For comparison, around 3 million American homes still don’t have indoor plumbing, as of 2018 data.
This “don’t need it” segment of the population seems to be growing, too. According to the most recent National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) report, the number of offline households who cited “lack of need or interest” has increased from 39% in 2009 to 58% in 2017.
This rise in people who don’t need or have an interest in broadband internet correlates almost exactly to smartphone use, with 17% of U.S. adults currently relying on smartphones exclusively — nearly double the number in 2013.
Lack of internet access has devastating consequences
But even though many Americans forego broadband voluntarily, there’s no question that a lack of access is debilitating for the 4.5 to 7.5 million households who have no choice.
Roughly 70% of teachers assign homework that requires internet access to complete, and 90% of high schoolers said they get assigned homework that has to be done online a few times a month, with almost half saying this happens daily.
It’s not just about completing homework assignments, though. One study saw test scores from students with limited internet access rise by 30% after they were given smartphones.
And these disadvantages negatively impact our entire country, too. At least six independent studies have determined that broadband access has a direct positive impact on job creation, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth and consumer surplus.
Microsoft wrote in its own analysis that “the counties with the highest unemployment also have the lowest broadband usage (and broadband access).”
Is the FCC doing enough to close the digital divide?
We’ve presented a lot of alarming statistics in this article, but it’s important to remember that a lot of progress has already been made.
When Bill Clinton first called the issue a “digital divide” in 2000, only 42% of rural residents used the internet, compared to 85% today. Broadband use has been steadily rising for over that period, too, but has flatlined around 70% over the past six years.
Part of that is choice — see the rising number of people who don’t need or aren’t interested in broadband — but much of it is still access. And addressing those remaining 4.5 to 7.5 million households with no broadband access will require tremendous investment.
The FCC recently approved $4.9 billion to “maintain, improve, and expand rural broadband” over the next 10 years. In the past five years, they’ve given out nearly $22 billion in subsidies to tackle this issue, but it’s hardly made a dent in the gap.
As staggering as those numbers are, it’s not even close to enough. By the FCC’s own estimation, it will cost $40 billion to bring broadband access to 98% of the country, and $80 billion to close the gap completely.
Several presidential candidates have made this a key issue, with Elizabeth Warren pledging $85 billion in federal grants, Pete Buttigieg $80 billion and Joe Biden $20 billion. President Trump has favored a private approach, signing two executive orders that allow private carriers to access infrastructure to build new fiber-optic networks.