Internet speed: Rural vs. city

Robin Layton

May 13, 2024 — 8 min read

The fastest internet isn’t always found in a metropolitan area.

A tower in the hills of Pennsylvania.

Key findings:

  • Large cities have slower average speeds than mid-sized cities
  • Smaller rural areas can have 100% fiber or cable coverage, resulting in speeds up to 1 gig or more 
  • San Diego is the top location with the fastest download speeds by population group (1M +) at 168 Mbps. 
  • Virginia boasts the fastest state internet connectivity at an average of 198 Mbps. 
  • Alaska has the slowest state average connectivity speed at 106 Mbps. 

Undisputedly, there is a digital divide in the U.S. However, it isn’t just a separation of the have-not country residents from the have-it-all city dwellers.

At the start of 2023, 83.2% of people residing in the U.S. lived in urban centers, while 16.8% lived in rural areas. 

Internet use is ubiquitous in the U.S. – regardless of where you live – with “93 percent of the adult U.S. population” accessing the internet,” a Statista report cites. 

Using Allconnect, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Census data, this report will highlight some interesting facts on internet availability. 

We tend to think that living in a metropolitan area like Baltimore, MD, provides us access to all the available goods and services that are faster and better than in a rural area like Fruitland, MD. However, that just isn’t true in all cases. 

In fact, Fruitland, an area of under 6,000 residents in southeastern Maryland, has 99% fiber or cable connectivity with average download speeds of 728 Mbps. Baltimore’s average is 167 Mbps, with the same 99% connectivity availability for over a half million residents. The nation’s average is 254 Mbps, according to 

So, why would a rural area boast such a higher speed average? It comes down to cost and population demographics. 

Matt Davis, Founder and Principal Analyst at Independence Research, explains that “ISPs build first where the ROI (return on investment) is greatest, so if a rural community has aerial telephone wires, it is cheaper to deploy fiber to them. Conversely, an old, densely populated city like Boston or San Francisco will have areas that are very hard to trench and deploy underground fiber, forcing them to settle for DSL or cable.”

Across the country, 1 in 6 people who live at or below the poverty level have no home internet access. Lower-income areas of large cities are often not on the radars of providers to update infrastructure; as Davis notes, it’s just too expensive for the provider.

Unfortunately, older internet connections can be more costly to run, increasing the cost of slower internet speeds compared to a nearby and newer neighborhood’s plan costs. That increased cost for less speed makes it unusable for a lower-income household. There’s insufficient speed to keep everyone connected, and the monthly charge for these homes is too high. 

What is broadband internet?

The FCC redefined the broadband speed standard from 25 Mbps to 100 Mbps earlier this year. Most providers offer cheap internet starting plans of up to 100 Mbps, but a family of four needs about 300 Mbps or more to maintain steady connectivity for working or learning from home. 

The FCC announced, “100/20 Mbps terrestrial fixed broadband service has not been physically deployed to approximately 7% of Americans. Rural areas and Tribal lands significantly trail more urban areas, with approximately 28% of people living in rural areas and approximately 23% of people living on Tribal lands lacking access to 100/20 Mbps fixed broadband services.” 

Municipalities and internet population

How many people live in a specific area also doesn’t define how fast the internet connections will be. For example, the average download speed for a 50K to 100K populated area is 179 Mbps compared to 124 Mbps for an area with 500K to 1 million residents. 

State speed vs. population density 

Washington, D.C., is 68 square miles, with 11,535 people per square mile, making it the most densely populated area in the U.S. However, it lands solidly mid-pack for average internet speed at 142 Mbps. The nation’s capital has 100% fiber or cable internet availability with over 100 Mbps in download speed, with fixed wireless availability at 68%. 

Virginia boasts the fastest state average speed at 198 Mbps, with 223 people per square mile. The state has a 92% connection availability rate for cable and fiber over 100 Mbps. Fixed wireless over 100 Mbps availability is considerably less at 34%.

Internet provider speeds by state

Our map below shows the dark blue states with the highest download speed averages. Virginia is the fastest at 198 Mbps, and Alaska is the slowest at 106 Mbps. 

Internet speeds in metro areas

Cities like San Diego and Houston have over one million people within their boundaries. However, the cities, along with Philadelphia, New York and San Antonio, are below the national average for internet speed. The five mega-cities also have wildly varying fiber/cable availability, from 25 to 100%. 

Internet deserts

Some areas of the U.S. have very little or no internet infrastructure and connectivity. These internet deserts include Tribal lands and other spots in the South and West.

“As recently as June 2023, more than 14 percent of households in rural areas and nearly 12 percent of those in Tribal areas lacked access to broadband, compared with 3 percent of households in metropolitan areas, according to data from the Federal Communications Commission,” according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

The USDA report studied three programs, the Broadband Initiatives Program, Community Connect and ReConnect, to see who was getting served by them. The federal government “invested or committed more than $100 billion to bring high-speed internet broadband service to unserved and underserved areas.”

The study found that the ReConnect Program, specifically for areas without broadband, served “0.12 percent of the total U.S. population but 21 percent of the population in areas eligible for the program through grant and loan projects approved in the first two funding rounds.”

The program served a larger share of the total American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) population than other races because a larger share of the AIAN population was eligible for the program. “However, AIAN residents had a smaller share of their eligible population in approved project areas than most other racial and ethnic groups because a smaller share of eligible AIANs lived in areas that had applied for funding.” 

The study also found that residents of the eligible service areas had less formal education and were “poorer and older than the population of ineligible (better served) areas.”

Closing the digital divide between rural and urban areas

A combination of government funding for provider expansion and cheaper plans by providers is aiming to close the gap and have 100% of the U.S. connected in the U.S. by 2030

Davis thinks 100% is optimistic by 2030. His “research projects fiber availability to still be under 90% by that time and may never reach 100% – with alternative technologies like satellite and 5G fixed wireless filling in the remaining gaps.”

For rural and city customers alike, satellite internet is almost always an option, but it can be a bit more expensive than other types and speeds rarely go up to or over 100 Mbps. 

Fiber availability across the country

Fiber is currently the fastest available internet type, and Delaware and Washington, D.C., are the only areas with 100% fiber coverage. 

According to the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) 2023 Fiber Deployment Report, almost half of the U.S. households have access to fiber internet. 

“According to the FCC’s Broadband Data Map, we estimate that roughly 52M or 46% of locations in the US are now serviceable by fiber as of June 2023. This includes 7.6M additional locations from last June, a 6-percentage point (pp) YoY increase in coverage.” 

The FBA report also noted, “While rural areas still trail behind with fiber access, great strides have been made in recent years. As urban geographies have filled out with fiber, areas with less competition are becoming more attractive. The COVID-19 pandemic also drew national attention to gaps in broadband access and added renewed focus—and funding— to bringing fiber broadband to rural communities.”

5G expansion

5G home internet is the relatively new player on the internet block, providing speeds around 200 to 300 Mbps. 5G home internet relies on the proximity to a cell tower to provide service. 

Verizon, AT&T, Starry and T-Mobile have 5G service expansion plans, both in cities and rural areas. 

Government plans

The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) provided income-challenged households a $30/mo. stipend to pay for $30/mo. 100 Mbps plans by participating providers, making their internet free. However, the program ran out of funding in early 2024, which is expected to cause millions to lose internet connections. 

Other programs like Lifeline can provide a small stipend toward a monthly internet or phone bill. Providers often offer their own low-income plan options as well. Comcast’s Xfinity is expanding its prepaid services to help with the gap left by the ACP’s exit. 

On a state and provider level, the federal government is offering over 70 funding opportunities for internet expansion. In 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act became law and provided $65 billion for broadband infrastructure and expansion. States are using that money to build out internet capacity with providers. 

Your address matters for internet service

Although most of the digital divide is between the rural and urban areas of the U.S., a rural designation doesn’t always mean you won’t have a choice of internet where you live. 

The reverse is also true, if you live in a major city, don’t always assume you will have the fastest internet around – your neighborhood may not be on a provider’s radar to upgrade or expand due to the high cost or low demand. 

If an ISP has invested in infrastructure like cabling or towers in your area, you will most likely have a choice of internet type and speed. Always check your address before you move or decide to upgrade your service. Just because your neighbors have a provider with a speedy 6 Gbps plan does not mean your home will have access. 

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

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 … Read more