Rural Broadband Access Still Lags Cities

Rural communities located farthest from city centers continue to have the worst advertised rate of high-speed Internet access, according to a new federal report.

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The nation’s most rural communities have broadband availability rates that are a third lower than the rates of big cities and suburbs, a federal report shows. 

But within these broad findings, there are important variations in broadband access among U.S. cities, suburbs, towns and very rural areas.

The report, by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Economics and Statistics Administration, shows once more that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” answer when it comes studying rural issues.

In general, the farther a location is from a central city, the worse its broadband availability will be. But the underlying story is more complicated.

The study used five geographic categories instead of just a simple rural/urban distinction. Researchers looked at “advertised” Internet access speeds in these geographic areas. (Many community broadband advocates will tell you that “advertised” and actual speeds aren’t necessarily the same thing. And the study didn’t consider the cost of the service, either, which can be a big factor in whether people actually use it.)

With those caveats, this chart is a key finding (click it to enlarge):

The colored lines represent different geographical areas (Central Cities, Suburbs, Exurbs, Small Towns, and Very Rural areas). The chart shows the percent of the population in each geographic category that has access to Internet at specific download speeds (described across the bottom of the chart).

Central Cities and Suburbs have very similar (and the highest) availability in every speed category.

Small Towns start out with an advantage over Exurbs, until the broadband download speed reaches 25 Megabits per second, at which point Exurbs catch up. The researchers say this means in some cases proximity to a metropolitan area is more important than population density in correlating with broadband speed.

Finally, at the bottom of the heap, are Very Rural areas – rural communities that are located outside both a metro county and small town.

The rural disadvantage grows bigger as you look at higher broadband access speeds. That’s important, because the threshold for what constitutes adequate broadband speed continues to increase; businesses, community institutions (like schools, libraries, medical clinics) and families continue to need greater speeds as more information and services move online.

The chart tracking upload speeds (below) is similar, except the relative disadvantage of small towns at faster speeds is even more pronounced:

Click the graph to enlarge it. This graph shows the availability of various upload speeds among the five geographic categories. Again, Very Rural finishes last.

The report says these distinctions should help policy makers decide how best to invest in broadband infrastructure to ensure the nation makes progress in broadband access.


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