The past three years have placed unprecedented demands on fixed and mobile broadband networks and underscored broadband as a necessity: A “seismic shift in broadband from being access to entertainment to becoming mission critical for work-from-home, online education, remote healthcare, economic development, and overall quality of life,” as Gary Bolton, president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association, wrote in the foreword of a recent report the organization commissioned on the state of U.S. broadband.
Local, state and federal agencies have doubled down on their efforts to close what is commonly called the “digital divide”, which refers to the gap between those who have high-quality internet access and digital devices, and those who do not—typically because they live in a geographic area that is remote, rural or poor, where network operators have not built out due to a lack of compelling business case/return on investment. Those efforts include more than $130 billion in funding for everything from subsidies for network infrastructure build-outs to such areas, as well as measures meant to focus on affordability, digital equity and digital skills acquisition. Most of that money is still in the process of being distributed and will be spread out over the next five to 10 years, depending on the specific program.
But what does the digital divide actually look like? It depends on how you look at the problem, whether through the lens of whether households have any internet access at all, how many options they have, the underlying technology type, the speeds available to them, affordability, or demographics such as whether school-age children have internet access at home, among many aspects of the digital divide.
Here are four assessments of the state of the digital divide in the United States.
- The Fiber Broadband Association has commissioned ongoing consumer surveys related to broadband since 2006, and also includes direct sampling of respondent’s actual experienced speed, latency and jitter. Analyst firm RVA, which has conducted the research, estimates that approximately 92% of U.S. households have Internet access at home, including 77% with wired service and 15% with wireless service. The majority of people with wireless internet service access it via mobile phones, as opposed to Fixed Wireless Access home broadband.
While average speeds have risen over the years and average cost per Mbps has dropped, RVA did find that there are still significant differences between service levels for low-income households and wealthier consumers, as well as a gap between service levels to high-density and low-density population centers.
Areas with low income also typically have the lowest available broadband speeds, which is attributable both to availability of service as well as adoption of lower-cost (and lower performance) service tiers, the report said. RVA found that households with incomes less than $20,000 tended to have average “blended” (average of tested upload and download speeds) of 55 Mbps compared to 77 Mbps for households with incomes above $150,000. The highest household blended speed, 86 Mbps, was actually found in households with income between $60,000-$74,000.
There was a more sizable gap in performance between zip codes with the lowest population density compared to high-density areas. RVA found that the blended speeds in zip codes with a population density of 0-9 people per square mile ran at a mere 28 Mbps (right at about the FCC minimum requirement for broadband), while speeds in zip codes with a population density of 5,000 people per square mile were nearly three times that, at 79 Mbps.
2. One of the most important assessments of the digital divide is the Federal Communications Commission’s annual Broadband Deployment Report to Congress—because the FCC is one of the agencies prioritizing the closing of the access and affordability gap, and it determines where a sizable chunk of federal funding will go to subsidize service extensions and what the performance requirements for such service will be.
In the 14th Broadband Deployment Report (the most recent one available, adopted in January 2021), the Commission said that its “top priority has been closing the digital divide, in recognition that high-speed broadband and the digital opportunity it brings are increasingly essential to innovation, economic opportunity, healthcare, and civic engagement in today’s modern society. … The need to deliver broadband connectivity across America has never been greater.”
By the FCC’s reckoning, the number of Americans living in areas without access to broadband speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps (the FCC’s baseline metric for broadband service) was fewer than 14.5 million, as of the end of 2019.
The agency also said that “the rural-urban divide is rapidly closing,” based on its assessment that the 30-point gap between urban Americans’ and rural Americans’ access dropped to 16% as of end-2019. The FCC said in the same report that nearly 83% of rural Americans live in areas with 25/3 Mbps broadband available.
As of the end of 2019, the FCC says, 94% of Americans had access to both 25/3 Mbps broadband and 10/3 Mbps LTE services, and nearly 60% of Americans already had access to 5G networks as well.
3. However, while the FCC has acknowledged the flaws in its data collection and is in the process of improving the census-block-level Form 77 data on which its assessment of broadband availability is based, advocacy group Broadband Now has been spot-checking that data and say it vastly overestimates the real-world availability of broadband services. While that 2021 FCC broadband report concluded that the number of Americans without broadband access had fallen to 14.5 million, Broadband Now said that based on its checks of actual availability across more than 55,000 real-world addresses, it estimates that the number is closer to 42 million.
Broadband Now’s study found that reporting of access for all fixed broadband connections, including DSL, fiber, cable and fixed wireless, were over-reported, and that such over-reporting is happening in cities, rural towns “and everywhere in between.” The “false positive” rate, where the FCC indicated service is available for a particular address but provider-based availability tools say it is not, was, on average, 21%. (In West Virginia, the false-positive rate for Broadband Now’s checks was 36%.)
4. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s 2021 Internet Use Survey also was less rosy than the FCC’s most recent assessment. The executive agency, which is tasked with the distribution of the billions in broadband funding for infrastructure and social support of digital initiatives in Tribal and underserved communities, said that the 2021 survey “represents the first comprehensive federal data on how Internet use in America has evolved since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The results make clear that our nation faces substantial challenges to achieving full digital equity.” The November 2021 Current Population Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau included NTIA’s Internet Use Survey and resulted in information on nearly 100,000 people living in more than 43,000 households across all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
NTIA explained: “Historically less-connected communities used the Internet and connected devices in greater numbers than they did two years ago. Despite that progress, the substantial disparities that NTIA has tracked for decades continued to be evident.” NTIA estimates that about one in five U.S. households are not online, or about 24 million.
That same survey also pointed to some of the non-infrastructure-related reasons why those households are still not connected. While 18% reported that affordability of broadband service was the primary reason they didn’t have it, the majority (58%) of those households said that they felt no interest or need to be online.
Looking for more perspective on the state of the digital divide in the U.S. and if/when it will finally be closed? Register for the upcoming RCR Wireless News webinar “Getting to ubiquity: The urban and rural digital divide” featuring A10 Networks and Ericsson.