Access Matters: National Broadband Map Reveals Gaps

 

2.22.11 | The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) last week launched the first-ever National Broadband Map, available at www.broadbandmap.gov. The searchable map shows where broadband internet service is available, the technology used to provide the service, the maximum advertised speeds of the service, and the names of the service providers.

The map also reveals that one-third of U.S. households still lack a broadband internet connection, and between 5 and 10 percent of people lack access to broadband at speeds that support basic applications, such as downloading web pages, photos and video.

In addition, the NTIA released the results of a new nationwide survey on broadband adoption that shows the persistence of some demographic disparities. Among the highlights of the February 2011 Digital Nation report (pdf):

  • Broadband Internet access at home continues to grow: 68 percent of households have broadband access, as compared to 63.5 percent last year. (In the survey, broadband was defined as Internet access service that uses DSL, cable modem, fiber optics, mobile broadband, and other high-speed Internet access services.)
  • Notable disparities between demographic groups continue: people with low incomes, disabilities, seniors, minorities, the less-educated, non-family households, and the non-employed tend to lag behind other groups in home broadband use.
  • While the digital divide between urban and rural areas has lessened since 2007, it remains significant. In 2010, 70 percent of urban households and only 60 percent of rural households accessed broadband Internet service. (Last year, those figures were 66 percent and 54 percent, respectively.)
  • Overall, the two most commonly cited main reasons for not having broadband Internet access at home are that it is perceived as not needed (46 percent) or too expensive (25 percent). In rural America, however, lack of broadband availability is a larger reason for non-adoption than in urban areas (9.4 percent vs. 1 percent). Americans also cite the lack of a computer as a factor.
  • Despite the growing importance of the Internet in American life, 28.3 percent of all persons do not use the Internet in any location, down from 31.6 percent last year.

The New York Times recently covered how this plays out in Clarke County, Ala., where about half of the 27,867 residents don’t have fast, reliable internet access:

“Ninety-five percent of the people in this county who want public water can have it, but people can’t even talk to each other around here,” said Sharon Jones, 60, who owns a small logging company with her husband and lives just outside Coffeeville.

It took her three days to try to arrange a meeting with the governor 150 miles away in Montgomery because such inquiries cannot be made over the phone and she had to drive 45 minutes to her daughter’s house to use e-mail.

At home, her cellphone works only if she walks to the porch and stands at the end of a bench. They have dial-up at the office, “but that’s so slow it makes you pull your hair out,” Mrs. Jones said. A satellite dish is out of the question because her house is surrounded by trees.

“It takes 10 times the effort to do what someone else can do in a matter of five minutes,” she said.

Brian Depew, an assistant director of the Center for Rural Affairs, a nonprofit research group in Lyons, Neb., told the NYT: “You often hear people talk about broadband from a business development perspective, but it’s much more significant than that. This is about whether rural communities are going to participate in our democratic society. If you don’t have effective broadband, you are cut out of things that are really core to who we are as a country.”

For students, lack of high-speed access is a major roadblock to full participation in digital environments. Young people are less likely to develop skills to create and mash-up media and may miss out on opportunities to collaborate in online spaces. As one 17-year-old tells the Times: “I’m missing a whole lot ... I know that.”

For more on the National Broadband Map:

Karl Bode identifies some weaknesses in the government’s mapping, including the lack of information on service costs.

Matthew Lasar explains how to use the map—and how to help improve it.

Amy Gahran suggests comparing the map with local demographics, which can be explored via The New York Times’ interactive map of U.S. Census data. “In some cases,” she writes, “there are interesting correlations between the broadband options available in an area and the race, income or education level of the people who live there.”

Earlier this month, Pew Research Center released a report showing a large gap in terms of broadband use at home between Latinos (45 percent), blacks (52 percent) and whites (65 percent). Among internet users, Hispanics are less likely to have a home broadband connection (69 percent) than are whites (84 percent) or blacks (78 percent). In 2010, more than three-fourths (77 percent) of white adults went online, compared to about two-thirds of Latino (65 percent) and black (66 percent) adults.

The survey further noted that the gap was related to education and earnings, and when those factors are controlled for, “the differences in internet use, home broadband access and cell phone use between Hispanics and whites disappear.”

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