Thirty miles outside the state capital of New York, the author struggles to maintain a 21st century connection to information and commerce. The National Broadband Map says he's covered – experience says otherwise. If that's what's happening in a "metro" county of 300,000, what's going on in more rural parts of America?
The federal government says I should have no trouble getting broadband Internet service. My experience says otherwise.
I know many folks in rural America could tell similar stories. Here’s mine:
I live only 30 miles from Albany, the capital of New York, and about two miles outside of a rural hamlet in the foothills of the Catskills. Even though our county (Albany) has more than 300,000 residents and is in a metropolitan statistical area, our more sparsely populated part of the county doesn’t have cable or DSL broadband access.
Our little library has cable access, as do the 70-80 homes in the hamlet. The cable company says it would cost $50,000 to run cable to my house. But even if I could pay that kind of fee, they wouldn’t run the line because we don’t have the 25 homes per mile to make it “cost effective.”
In 2007 I bit the bullet and went from dialup to satellite Internet. It was a good move. When someone wanted access to the Internet, we didn’t have to check to see if the phone was in use. And we didn’t knock someone off the Internet if we picked up the phone.
Satellite promised much faster download and upload speeds, and we would be able to do all that the advertisements tell you are possible. Reality was a bit different from the advertisements.
Many times our throughput speeds weren’t any better than dialup. We’d go through the speed tests and contact the provider about the speeds. But from the provider perspective, everything looked fine. When the weather was bad here in Upstate New York, we’d lose service. When snow piled up high enough on the dish, we’d lose service. On balance, it was better than dialup but marginally so and quite a bit more expensive.
About a year ago we made the jump to wireless service because Verizon had installed a cell tower and it promised faster speeds. Most of the time it does, but many times we’re back to dial-up speeds.
Even with the top access plan, we’re limited to a total of 10 gigabytes of upload and download per month. Service outages aren’t as frequent as they were with satellite, but they still occur. The longest recent outage was two hours. That’s not a big deal if you can’t check your Facebook account, but it sure is if you’re a small business dependent on Internet service, which we are.
I pay for satellite television , I pay for my telephone landline, I pay for my cell service (which we’ve only had available for three years), and I pay for my Internet service off that cell tower. That’s a total of $375 per month. Even paying that much per month, the major providers still can’t give me access to 21st century technology.
National Broadband Mapping
My story isn’t just another example of the frustrations that many rural residents face when it comes to accessing high-speed broadband. To add salt to the wound of rural broadband, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has me officially classified as having broadband service. That’s technically correct, as I currently get my Internet service off a fixed wireless cell tower.
What frustrates me is my service shouldn’t be classified as broadband (at least 768 kilobytes per second download). The “official” data is misleading and over-represents the extent of broadband coverage in the United States. My speeds are nowhere close to advertised speed, and the data limit of 10 gigabytes makes it impossible to view large videos, let alone try to stream a movie. In my business, I need to access large data files and can easily bump my 10 gigabyte limit if I’m not careful.
Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Broadband Data Improvement Act (BDIA), the U.S. Department of Commerce, NTIA, was charged with the development and maintenance of a “comprehensive, interactive, and searchable nationwide inventory map of existing broadband service capability and availability in the United States”. The map would depict the extent of broadband availability from commercial or public providers in each state. To complete the nationwide effort, NTIA awarded grants to assist states in gathering and verifying state-specific data on broadband services.
In February of 2011 the agency released the National Broadband Map. Above is the national map of wireline coverage – that’s DSL, copper, cable and fiber. It’s easy to see the U.S. providers run cable, whatever the type, to where the population is. But even this shows interesting differences. For example, North and South Dakota, ranking 48th and 46th respectively in population size, have reasonable coverage. It makes one wonder whether it’s really more affordable to run cable across long distances than providers tell us. Could there be political influences in provider coverage?
Fixed and mobile wireless presents a very different picture, though those living in the West clearly still have significant areas with no coverage of any type.
When wireline and wireless coverage is taken together, much of the continental United States arguably has some type of broadband access. Estimates of the percent of U.S. residents with broadband access vary and depend on the speed definition of broadband and coverage area of providers. As a result, there’s considerable debate about where the United States stands globally in a ranking of broadband accessibility and penetration. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development measures the broadband Internet penetration rate as the number of subscribers per 100 inhabitants. The United States ranks 16th in this category. The United States ranks eighth in total wireless broadband, though we rank second (behind Japan) in mobile broadband penetration. As with so many statistical comparisons, the conclusions depend on the data and definitions used. And that’s where the NTIA official measure of broadband access falls short.
NTIA Broadband Mapping
While the NTIA provided detailed specifications for the submission of area coverage data, the methods by which states could determine unserved and underserved areas were not pre-determined. The data submitted by providers varied in format from paper/PDF maps to address points to digital shapefiles. A major problem is that these formats don’t always allow for exact determination of coverage, especially for large rural blocks over the two-square-mile threshold.
Estimating the number of unserved and underserved housing units requires two data elements: 1) accurate boundary data from service providers on coverage areas and 2) accurate data on residential housing units at the census block level. Census data is the easy part of this equation, while accurate boundary data on service areas is difficult and subject to error. We’ve all had experiences with dropped cell coverage due to terrain in areas that are supposed to have service. These areas will show as having service on the national map, when in fact they may not. Or, as in my case, service is available but at speeds well below what’s advertised but meeting the NTIA threshold for broadband. The bottom line here is that even in not-so-rural America, there is sub-optimal Internet access.
What To Do
There are rural communities across the United States with extraordinarily high quality of life. But these communities are under threat. They are aging rapidly, and their economies are based on 19th and 20th century industries that have long since left. Will 21st century technology and Internet access save them all? Probably not. But limited access to today’s technology infrastructure insures that they won’t be able to establish new economies and attract a younger population.
On most measures of broadband access, penetration and adoption, the United States lags the rest of the world. We need to understand the deficiencies in our official measurement of broadband availability and acknowledge that using advertised speeds is not an adequate measure of broadband access. Reliance on service-provider data does not fully describe the extent of unserved and underserved areas.
The National Broadband Plan contains six long-term goals and two are most relevant from my perspective:
I think these goals are inadequate and see two problems inherent in them. First, there are nearly 120 million households in the United States, which leaves 20 million homes, one out of every six, with sub-standard access. Second, the goals are inconsistent. If 20 million homes are left without access, how can every American have access to robust service and the option to subscribe?
Rural areas can’t very well meet the growing needs for education, health care and economic development without the technological infrastructure necessary to support them.
On May 3, 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced new rules for funding broadband service in rural communities through the Community Connect broadband grants. The program moves in the right direct. But in these days of sequestration, funding is limited. Unfortunately, with goals limited in scope and funding restricted, the hope of connecting rural, and not-so-rural residents is still a dream.
Robert Scardamalia is former chief demographer for the state of New York and directed the Department of Economic Development’s Center for Research and Information Analysis. He is the founder of RLS Demographics, Inc. located in Albany County, New York.