Even with billions of dollars, connecting every American to the internet isn’t an easy or quick feat

Robin Layton

Jul 27, 2023 — 6 min read

5G tower in rural America

“Like electricity a century ago, broadband is a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life.”

This was the introduction of the federal government’s 2010 National Broadband Plan. Thirteen years and billions of investment dollars later, that statement still rings true. 

The 2010 plan’s major goal was very similar to the current end goals of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Progam (BEAD):

To connect every American to high-speed internet. But there’s always been a disconnect on what that speed should be.

In 2010, the hope was at least 100 million U.S. residents would have access to speeds of 100 Mbps download and 50 Mbps upload. That was aiming pretty high for the period, and today, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is striving to change its 2015 definition of high-speed internet from 25 Mbps/3 Mpbs to 100 Mbps/20 Mbps.

Current state funding for broadband expansion 

The FCC launched a plan to update its internet availability map in 2022. This was important because it is how most funding for high-speed broadband is allocated. The map was known to have many errors and didn’t reflect the proper size of the digital divide that existed in the country – basically who had access to internet and who did not.

The agency asked for challenges from residents and state entities to correct the errors. Once the new version was available, it was used to allocate funding in 2023. 

The state recipients of BEAD grants were recently announced based on the map’s availability statistics. Texas was the state eligible for the largest allocation of the $42 billion at $3.3 billion. 

The federal government’s Internet For All plan is to have high-speed internet available to all areas of the U.S. by 2030. 

The White House released the highlights of the funding:

  • Awards were in various amounts up to $3.3 billion, with every state receiving a minimum of $107 million.
  • 19 states received allocations over $1 billion with the top 10 allocations in Alabama, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington.
  • With these allocations and other administration investments, all 50 states, DC, and the territories now have the resources to connect every resident and small business to reliable, affordable high-speed internet by 2030.

There is also other funding involved in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law:

  • $14.2 billion for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). 
  • $2.75 billion for the Digital Equity Act, to provide the financing to ensure people have the skills and support needed to use high-speed internet connections.
  • $2 billion for the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program.
  • $2 billion for the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Reconnect Program, which provides loans and grants primarily to build high-speed internet infrastructure in rual areas.
  • $1 billion for the Middle Mile Program, which provides funding for the “middle mile” backbone of internet networks.

Challenges to broadband expansion 

Over the several years that the government has focused on making sure everyone has broadband available, there have been challenges to making it a reality: Affordability and technology being two major issues. 

Cost of infrastructure build-out

Expanding the reach of broadband in rural areas is a challenge, with the price being cost-prohibitive, especially for fiber internet connections. Installing cables for hundreds of miles to serve a small population doesn’t make sound business sense.

Last-mile funding is also a blocker for many internet providers. That is the span of cables that connects your home to the provider’s infrastructure at the main road. 

As Earthlink explains, providers “have to invest in the infrastructure to reach individual homes; they get a larger return on their investment in densely populated areas, like cities and suburbs. Areas with geographic barriers (like mountains) or low population density (requiring miles of internet lines for a handful of households) are less likely to be appealing to some internet providers.”

Geography – and the sheer size and complicated terrain of an unserved area – create literal roadblocks to internet expansion.

For example, Fierce Telecom reported that California, which is eligible for $1.86 billion in BEAD funding, won’t have enough money to expand fiber broadband that they tagged at around $10 billion, “The timeline for universal service with fiber-to-the-premises would extend beyond the BEAD funding timeline and require additional federal and state funding.” 

Consumer affordability

With the average monthly cost of internet between $70-$90, it’s expensive to have a high-speed plan and some Americans simply cannot afford it.

To help ensure people have access to affordable internet, the ACP was launched in December 2021. However, adoption rates have been low, with only about 14 million of 48 million eligible households applying, so various federal and state agencies are pushing to make the application process easier for low-income residents. 

Participating internet service providers (ISPs) offer $30/mo. plans with at least 100 Mbps in download speed. The government reimburses that amount, making the internet plan free for eligible customers. Although it was tagged by the government to receive more funding as listed above, this program is slated to run out of money in 2024, which could plunge many families back into an internet-less state.

The state of broadband availability

Although 92.2% of U.S. households have access to at least one provider offering 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speeds, the new version of the FCC broadband map shows eight million people in the U.S. still lack high-speed internet access. 

Allconnect’s availability report highlights the areas with the most and least broadband.

States with the least internet connectivity

Mississippi: 86% without internet access

Alaska: 87%

West Virginia: 89%

Arkansas: 91%

Alabama: 92%

States with the most internet connectivity

Kansas: 100%

Rhode Island: 100%

California: 99%

Colorado: 99%

Connecticut: 99%

Game-changers for internet availability

For people living in rural or unserved areas, there are other options than waiting for cable internet or fiber to expand to their area.

Satellite internet is available to 99% of the country and providers are trying to keep up with the speed demands. For example, HughesNet is staying viable by providing Fusion plans that combine satellite and wireless technologies to deliver high-speed, low-latency internet. 

New players like Starlink provide internet to rural and previously unreachable areas with a low-orbit array of satellites that provide up to 200 Mbps in download speed. 

What successful deployment of internet for all needs to succeed

To meet the 2030 broadband connectivity goal of internet for all, it isn’t just more federal dollars that will be needed. Collaboration at all levels is necessary to ensure the internet is available in every area, the plans are affordable, people know how to use it and data privacy and security are planned for. 

This will require coordination between government agencies, private sector businesses and community organizations. 

There are several private and nonprofit organizations working with their communities and state governments to close the digital divide, like Education Superhighway.  

The nonprofit started by helping schools connect to the internet and has expanded to programs that show how municipalities and property owners can provide free apartment internet. 

One city in Tennessee created its own ISP, offering residents internet access up to 10 Gbps. Chattanooga’s internet service is municipally owned, which in some states is against the law. In fact, 16 states have laws that restrict municipal broadband use. 

This is in direct conflict with the current administration’s wording in the infrastructure law that says states can’t exclude municipalities from broadband funds. 

Until state and federal governments work together and join the efforts of other organizations, implementing a 100% internet accessibility plan will be fighting an uphill battle.

Wrapping up

Providing internet for all in the U.S. has been a focus of many government representatives and organizations for over a decade. A milestone step is being taken in states to help their unconnected residents with the BEAD funding disbursement on the horizon. However, challenges exist with the need for more funding, more infrastructure and the creation of more affordable plans to allow everyone online access.

Curious about what types of internet are available in your area? Check your address to find out.

Find more broadband news and studies on trends in the industry on Allconnect’s news hub and research hub

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Robin Layton

Written by:

Robin Layton

Editor, Broadband Content

Robin Layton is an editor for the broadband marketplace Allconnect. She built her internet industry expertise writing and editing for four years on the site, as well as on Allconnect’s sister site MYMOVE.com. … Read more