The Rural Broadband Gap is Widening

A lot of attention is being paid to the broadband gap between urban and rural America. There are a lot of different estimates of the number of rural homes and businesses that don’t have broadband. At the low end of the scale are the FCC estimates that come from the overstated FCC broadband maps that are derived from overstated 477 data from ISPs. States and counties have made estimates of broadband coverage which invariably show more places without broadband than the FCC data. What everybody agrees on is that there are still a lot of rural places with poor broadband, be that number 18 million or 30 million people or 50 million – there is a definite urban versus rural broadband gap.

The FCC has been publicly touting that they are solving the gap by funding programs that bring broadband to places that don’t have it. The upcoming $20 billion RDOF grants will make a dent in the places without broadband, although the 6-year required construction buildout that doesn’t start until next year will feel glacial to places that desperately need broadband today. We’ll have to wait for the reverse auction to see how many millions of homes eventually get broadband from this program – at best it’s likely to only help a fraction of those with no broadband. Unless Congress acts, there isn’t going to be a solution for the many millions that are not going to be covered by FCC programs.

There is another broadband gap that is not getting the press coverage. The average speed of broadband is growing rapidly. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai took credit for this growth in a recent tweet and claimed faster speeds are due to the end of net neutrality and to ending broadband regulation: “Two years ago today, some Washington politicians promised you that the Internet would slow down. What’s happened since? Average U.S. fixed broadband speeds are UP over 76% according to Ookla. It [repealing net neutrality] wasn’t the end of the Internet as we know it—not even close.”

I’m not sure what Ookla numbers he’s referring to. In the Ookla Speedtest Global Index, the company says that the average fixed broadband speed in the US climbed from 111.69 Mbps to 134.77 Mbps during 2019 – an impressive 21% increase. This matches with recently announced statistics from OpenVault that says that average speeds in the US increased from 103 Mbps to 128 Mbps for the year ending in the third quarter of 2019 – a growth rate of 24%.

I’m not that sure any of the speed increase is due to FCC actions. Faster speeds come from several sources. Most of the increase comes from the big cable companies unilaterally increasing broadband speed in urban markets to as much as 200 Mbps. Since the big cable companies serve two-third of the broadband market, any changes they make in speeds immediately affects the average. The urban speeds are further increased by the continued migration of urban customers from DSL to cable modem. There is also an increase in customers buying gigabit broadband, which according to OpenVault is now 2.8% of all broadband customers – nearly doubling in 2019. Finally, there is a small increase due to some rural markets getting broadband upgrades – but the rural customers added to the market are too small to make much of an impact on the national average. I guess I’d like Chairman Pai to be more specific, because I don’t see an FCC fingerprint on these industry trends.

It’s great that broadband speeds are improving. Anybody who has been paying attention saw this coming, since average speeds having been growing at a rate of over 20% annually for several decades. What Chairman Pai and most others have missed is that these speed increases come almost entirely from urban customers. The speed gap between urban and rural America is widening rapidly as urban speeds climb.

This urban / rural speed gap is important to recognize because urban customers are finding ways to use the faster broadband. Consider the many uses of broadband in urban areas that are out of reach for a rural household. We routinely back-up data files into cloud storage. Our computers, cellphones, cars, TVs and numerous devices routinely and automatically download updates and upload data into the cloud. We use cloud-based security cameras that we can access when away from home. When we walk into our homes our cellphones automatically start using our home broadband. We are free to work from home, even if it’s only to log into a corporate WAN in the evening. Our kids routinely do online homework and practically all of the communications between schools, students, and parents is online. We now use a huge amount of machine-to-machine data that has nothing to do with video and entertainment.

People living without good broadband can’t do any of these things. In just the last week CCG interviewed several rural residents that tell a different story than that list above. Parents drive an hour so kids can use library broadband for schoolwork. Rural businesses can’t maintain a quality signal on satellite broadband to be able to take credit card payments. Residents frantically try to shut off automatically updating software to avoid going over their data caps. I could fill a week of blogs with the horror stories about rural broadband.

If we look back even just seven or eight years ago, the urban versus rural speed gap didn’t feel so wide. When the average urban home got speeds of 25 Mbps there wasn’t such a giant gap with rural residents because urban residents didn’t use broadband as extensively as they do today. But urban speeds are getting faster and faster while the broadband for too many rural homes has stayed stagnant – where it even exists. To quote a rural resident that we spoke to last week, rural people with poor broadband now feel like they aren’t part of the 21st century.