Broadband Access: Exploring Internet Connectivity by U.S. Community Type

BY Dante Chinni  March 28, 2011 at 11:35 AM EDT


The federal government wants you to have access to a broadband connection. Badly. The Federal Communications Commission has held dozens of workshops and filed away more than 23,000 comments on its National Broadband Plan.

“High-speed wireless service is the next train station, the next off-ramp,” President Obama said in February. “It’s how we’ll spark new innovation, new investments and new jobs.”

That’s an important set of goals for an economy that is still trying to climb out of the last recession, and most experts would argue an accurate one. It’s one reason why more than $7 billion of the 2009 stimulus plan was dedicated to broadband expansion.

Setting up broadband; Creative Commons photo courtesy flickr.com/beefy_n1If broadband is indeed key to all those elements, how close is the United States to achieving a goal of universal access to broadband? Well, in some of Patchwork Nation’s 12 county types, availability seems to be very close to reality. In others, however, much work remains to be done, according to data collected by Connected Nation and analyzed by Patchwork Nation.

In the counties holding the nation’s most-urban areas, the Industrial Metropolis, more than 99 percent of the population has access to a broadband connection – figured here at three megabytes per second. But in more sparsely populated areas, the numbers are much lower. In the Mormon Outposts, largely located in the Mountain West, the broadband connection rates average about 80 percent.

But the story of broadband coverage is complicated.

Who’s Plugged In?

Looking county-by-county on the map you can see the communities that are well positioned for the Web-based economic/cultural/political future. Places like the New York City metro area are saturated with broadband, while places like rural Arkansas have much spottier coverage.

When you dig further into the numbers, however, you see they are about more than just income or population density. Education plays a role, as you might imagine. The counties with the second-best connectivity rate are the collegiate Campus and Career locales. Nearly 97 percent have access to broadband there even though in terms of population density and income levels the Monied Burbs would seem likely to have better connectivity. They about $10,000 richer per household on average. The Burbs have a broadband access score of about 95 percent.

And while the exurban Boom Towns have a higher median household income than the aging Emptying Nests by about $5,000, the places are roughly look similar in their access to broadband – 93.57 percent versus 93.30 percent respectively. That may because some of those more removed Boom Town communities, newly sprouted towns, are harder to wire.

There are even differences among the most far-flung of our county types – the Service Worker Centers and Tractor Country counties. Tractor Country, which is less-wealthy and less-populated than the Service Worker Centers, is slightly better connected.

Why? As we have noted previously, Tractor Country communities in particular seem to show a stronger streak of civic pride than other communities. People in those places may tend to dislike the federal government, but they seem believe strongly in doing things for the community itself. That certainly is something we have witnessed in Sioux Center, Iowa, a Tractor Country community we visit.

So if you were to sit down with a mathematician and try to figure out a formula for connectivity – admittedly a very difficult challenge – it might look something like population density, plus education, plus income, plus civic engagement equals better access to broadband.

More to the Picture

Wiring far-flung places will not be cheap. Getting an exact cost is difficult, but the Web is littered with stories of ridiculous expenditures aimed at bringing small, rural locales fully into the digital age.

And access is only one part of the issue, the other is the ability to afford an actual connection. Some of the least-wealthy counties we look at are among those listed above that have the least access – Tractor Country, the Service Worker Centers, the Evangelical Epicenters. And while the cost of wiring those places certainly plays an issue, it may be they are less wired precisely because they are less wealthy. There may be less interest in broadband there.

The costs of broadband service vary by community and service provider, of course, but, on average the cost is about $41 a month, according to a survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project done last August. That’s about $11 a month higher than dial-up access the survey found – or over the course of the year an extra $150. That’s not astronomical, of course, but it may feel like a lot in some communities that are struggling with the effect of the recession as well as long-term economic woes.

Patchwork Nation has not yet explored Internet usage by community type, but we have looked at issues like social media use in our book. And we looked at broadband access versus adoption in Ohio on our site, where we found sharp differences. The Emptying Nests were below 50 percent for adoption, even with their well-wired communities. And the Service Worker Centers and Evangelical Epicenters were at about 40 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

That means even if the broadband network is fully built out – not an inexpensive proposition – there will still be the challenge of helping those who cannot afford it and, along with that, there will be the challenge of convincing those who aren’t as interested in life online that broadband is critical to their future – the key to that national transformation President Obama has outlined.

That may be the toughest sell in some communities where times are tight.