Broadband Connection Highs and Lows Across Rural America
2007 Ag Census/Tim Murphy
The percentage of U.S. farms with high speed Internet access varies wildly from state to state and county to county, according to the recently released federal Census of Agriculture. Nearly 6 out of 10 farms in Connecticut had a high speed Internet connection in 2007, when the Census was taken. In Mississippi, only 2 out of 10 farms had a quick connection to the World Wide Web.
The Census found that farms in rural and exurban counties were less likely to have broadband connections than farms located in metro counties. Nationally, 31.3% of farms in rural counties had broadband connections. In urban counties, nearly 40% of farm operators had high speed Internet connections.
Over 2.2 million farms were included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Census, which is conducted every five years. In 2002, the Census found that half the farms in the country were connected to the Internet in some way (broadband or dial-up). By 2007, the percentage of farms with some kind of Internet connection inched up to 56.5%.
However, only 33% of farms in 2007 had broadband connections.
The Census only contacts farm operators, but the results here may be a good surrogate for how far broadband has penetrated across rural America. In a 2007 phone survey, The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 31% of rural Americans had broadband connection — a percentage that exactly matches the overall findings of the Census.
The Pew survey was too small to show differences from state to state. The Census, however, gives a good reading on how broadband Internet is being used down to the county level. (See the map above.)
There were large differences in how deeply broadband connections had penetrated into rural communities by region of the country. The West leads in broadband connections and the South lags far behind.
2007 Ag Census
A comparison of state totals can be found below. The chart shows the number of farms, the percent of farms using some kind of Internet connection, the number of farms that use high speed connections and a range of broadband use among the state’s counties.
2007 Ag Census
To find how rural, exurban and urban counties fared by region and by state, click on one of the links below.
For Northeastern states, go here.
For Southern states, go here.
For Midwestern states, go here.
For Western states, go here.
There are patterns in the Census data. The most urban states have the most farms with broadband connection. Also, states with large farms also have a high percentage of operations with high speed connections. Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Iowa and Kansas are all well above the national average of broadband connection.
The 50 purely rural counties with the highest percentage of farms having broadband connections are a mixture of recreation counties and counties with serious agricultural interests. (See the chart below.)
2007 Ag Census
Rural communities teeming with big farms — farms with large acreages and incomes — had rates of broadband connection that were above the national average. Where large farms constituted 20% or more of the county's farm operators, more than 75% of those counties had rates of broadband connection that were above the U.S. average.
These "big ag" counties accounted for only 38% of all rural and suburban counties, but 58% of all rural and suburban counties with above average high speed connections. These counties were home to only 33% of all rural farms nationally, but 40% of farms with broadband connections.
In this sense, states mattered less than the structure of agriculture within individual counties. For example, Mississippi had the lowest state average for broadband usage by farmers. But all the counties in the state's sprawling Mid South Delta region of large (and heavily subsidized) cotton and soybean producers — not to mention catfish farms — were above the national average for broadband connections.
The average rate for broadband connection in the Delta was 36%, five points over the U.S. average and 23% better than the South as a whole.
The most connected rural counties, however, are the very rich recreation counties of Nantucket in Massachusetts and Pitkin (home of the ski resort Aspen) in Colorado. Hood River, a windsurfing Mecca east of Portland, Oregon, ranks third. The next three are ski counties in Colorado.
However, three counties in Nebraska — Kearney, Phelps and Clay — rank 6th, 7th and 8th on the list of best-wired counties.
Here are the 50 rural counties with the highest percentage of farms having broadband Internet connections.
The Census asked only two questions pertaining to the Internet: Did the farm operator at any time in 2007 have internet access? And, did the farm operator have a high speed Internet connection? The Census did not ask about price or the kind of connection the operator purchased — DSL, cable, satellite.
The nation has little sense of who has and who lacks broadband connections in rural America. The Senate stimulus bill, in fact, requires the Department of Commerce to prepare “a comprehensive nationwide inventory map of existing broadband service capability and availability in the United States.”
Until that report is completed, however, the Ag Census may have the most complete survey of broadband availability and use in rural America.
The Census collected answers from so many rural residents — more than 1.3 million farms ranging from mega-ranches in Texas to hobby farms in Washington — that it gives a good picture of how deeply broadband has penetrated into rural America.
The map at the top of this story shows a clear divide between the eastern and western United States. Farms east of the Mississippi River, especially in the South, use broadband Internet far less than those farms in the Great Plains, the Mountain West and the Pacific coast. Some states are clearly more broadband-savvy than others.
Is that because of the local economy, state policy, national broadband initiatives, local government? It’s impossible to tell, but the variation in broadband use across rural America is so large that it raises questions about the extent of economic and social inequality among rural communities.