The broadband divide is much more than just who has a connection and who doesn't. In fact, the rural-urban gap is much wider in terms of choice of providers and speed than it is for a simple connection.
The federal government has released an incredible amount of data about where broadband Internet is available and where it isn’t.
The data is confusing and hard to work with, but it does tend to show major gaps in broadband coverage. To start, the 25 million bits of data released by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration show that somewhere between five and ten percent of Americans lack any kind of broadband connection.
Major institutions have inadequate connections. Two-thirds of schools have connections with capacities less than what they need. Only four percent of libraries report having optimum broadband connections.
Our interest, however, is in rural broadband.
NTIA reports that a gap remains between rural and urban residents in their adoption of broadband, but the gap is narrowing. In 2010, 66% of urban residents and 54% of rural residents had broadband connections. This year, the rates are 70% and 60% respectively.
In rural areas, 9.4 percent of residents told NTIA that they didn’t have broadband because it was unavailable. In urban areas, that reason was given by only 1% of those asked.
Researchers have been pawing over the data. In late March, they held a conference where several preliminary reports were released. You can go here to find slides and data on broadband speeds, coverage and competition.
We looked at the data to see what it tells about broadband in rural America. The data was divided into census tracts, which, on average, have 4,000 people. We used a sliding scale developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to tell us whether a tract was urban, a small city (under 50,000), a small town (under 10,000) or a totally rural community (under 2,500).
(For data fiends, we used USDA’s Rural-Urban Commuting Area Codes. Codes 1-3 were deemed urban; 4-6 small cities; 7-9 small towns; and 10 rural.)
We were able to find consistent differences in the data. That is, as census tracts got more rural, Internet service declined.
We have two examples. The first shows the percentage of census tracts with only one broadband provider. In urban areas, only 2.2% of census tracts had a single broadband provider.
As the communities grew more rural, however, the percentage of tracts with only one provider grew. In rural America, nearly one in four census tracts had only one broadband provider.
The same stair-step pattern can be seen with download speeds. In urban areas, less than 4% of census tracts had broadband download speeds of under 6 megabits per second. That rose steadily as the tracts grew more rural until, in the most rural areas, 17.2% of the communities had these slow download speeds.
And those were advertised download speeds. Some researchers believe that real download speeds in rural America are far slower than those advertised.
What the data tells us is that the broadband divide is much more than just who has a connection and who doesn’t. In fact, the rural-urban gap is much wider in terms of choice of providers and speed than it is for a simple connection.
Roberto Gallardo is a research associate at the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University. Bill Bishop is co-editor of The Daily Yonder.