Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Major rural-urban digital divide persists; slow DSL remains the most common type of internet service in rural America

Gray areas are census blocks without broadband providers. (Purdue University map, enhanced for clarity; click to enlarge)
Almost 70 percent of households with no access to high-speed broadband service are in rural areas, according to a study by the Purdue Center for Regional Development. That's about 4.8 million people in 2.2 million housing units who don't have internet with speeds of at least 25 megabits per second for download and 3 Mbps upload, according to data submitted by internet service providers.

It has been difficult to assess the availability of rural broadband availability, since the Federal Communications Commission's maps rely on self-reported data from internet providers who have incentives to exaggerate their coverage areas. The study report acknowledges the limitations of the data it used, but says it is still a valuable tool when interpreted carefully, Roberto Gallardo writes for The Daily Yonder. Gallardo is the co-author of the study report and the center's assistant director.

"A sizable digital divide persists between urban and rural," Gallardo writes. "Consider that the share of rural housing units with no access to 25/3 was 20 times larger than the share of urban housing units (26.9 versus 1.4 percent). When it comes to symmetrical 25/25 speeds, the share of rural housing units with no access more than doubles from 26.9 to 64.7 percent." Upload speeds are important to businesses and homes that create content instead of just consuming it.

Advertised internet speeds were lower overall in rural areas than in urban areas, regardless of provider type. In rural areas, the most commonly available broadband is Digital Subscriber Line, which uses phone lines. But the median download/upload speed for a sample of more than 9 million DSL users was only 15/1, which fails to meet the FCC's definition of broadband, Gallardo reports.

Part of the problem is that big telecommunications companies won contracts to build out rural broadband, then saved money by using the slower, cheaper DSL instead of cable or fiber optic networks. DSL once met the minimum download speed of 10 Mbps required by the Connect America Fund, but after major pressure, the FCC increased the definition of broadband to 25/3.

Smaller providers cover a larger share of rural America than the top six telecoms, the study found. So, the report recommends federal incentives and state broadband programs to help these smaller providers to expand or upgrade infrastructure.

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