How good is US internet access? That’s a matter of some debate


A debate is simmering between Washington policymakers and the private sector over whether U.S. companies are building out internet infrastructure quickly enough. 

Despite significant investments in the last decade that have made high-speed broadband available to 89 percent of homes, stark gaps remain in rural areas and on Tribal lands. 

{mosads}Even in major cities with wide internet access, officials caution that many people are priced out of a service that has become a modern necessity. 

“A lot of people will look at 90 percent and say that is good enough, which we say no, you have to set 100 percent, because you are not actually going to hit your goal,” said Meredith Rose, a staff attorney with the consumer group Public Knowledge.

“You can’t just wipe your hands and say 90 percent is good enough,” she added.

About 34 million Americans live in places without access to high-speed internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Only 4 percent of urban residents lack access, but that number shoots up to 39 percent in rural areas and 41 percent on tribal lands. 

There are dozens of ways to measure the build-out of U.S. broadband infrastructure, from deployment in rural and urban areas to measurements of speed, price or spending by U.S. companies.

The industry boasts that it has poured $245 billion into broadband development in the past decade.

And when compared to the entire continent of Europe, the United States comes out on top when measuring broadband deployment. It also wins out in rural broadband development overall. 

But when measured against individual countries in Europe and Asia, the United States lags behind a number of other developed nations on deployment, speed and price.

Ten countries in Europe have more high-speed coverage than the United States. And 22 industrialized countries have cheaper service, when balancing the exchange rates.  

The U.S. also ranks low — 26 out of 40 — on a list of countries around the world when measuring the average speed of internet service. It is far behind countries with high urban areas like Singapore, South Korea and Switzerland.

A straight comparison of the United States and other individual countries might be misleading because of the sheer size of the country. But even Republicans agree that the industry has struggled to connect people in hard-to-reach rural areas. 

“We are struggling with the fact that there are plenty of Americans that do not have adequate broadband services, and we are trying to find out how to solve those issues in those nooks and crannies throughout America, and it is very difficult,” Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said Tuesday. 

The cable industry and allies dispute that the gaps in access are as drastic as government reports make it seem. The industry argues the FCC benchmark for high-speed internet is too high and that it was artificially set to make deployment look worse.

High-speed internet is defined by the FCC as a service with download speeds of 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. To put that into context, Netflix recommends download speeds of at least 3 Mbps to stream standard video, 5 Mbps for HD video and 25 Mbps for Ultra HD.

“Looking at the market for broadband applications, we are aware of few applications that require download speeds of 25 Mbps,” a group of congressional Republicans told the FCC earlier this year. 

Private businesses, the federal government and local communities have tried out different models to either expand or improve service. 

The federal government has a multi-billion dollar program called the Connect America Fund that offers subsidies to internet service providers to build out their service in rural areas where it would be hard to turn a profit. 

Dozens of cities are running their own municipal broadband services that offer super-fast speeds. The federal government has also helped with this effort. The FCC recently preempted a pair of state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee so that cities there could expand the service outside their borders.  

Technology companies like Google have begun laying thousands of miles of fiber-optic cables to offer its own super-fast service in a handful of cities. That has pushed traditional providers to boost their service. 

“While our research reveals cost and speed discrepancies, the cities with the most competitive offerings are those where disruptive broadband offerings such as Google Fiber and municipal broadband service compete,” said Sarah Morris, who leads internet policy at New America’s Open Technology Institute. 

While coverage gaps are most prevalent in rural areas and tribal lands, major cities have also struggled with modern conveniences, like allowing smartphone users to search the web or stream video during their commute. 

Sometimes-spotty cell service now covers many of the Washington, D.C., metro platforms, but a 2009 deal to wire the entire system has been delayed by years as the city prioritized rail safety for its aging system.

The Washington Post reported last year that the project was expected to be fully finished by 2020 under a new agreement. 

New York City has started one of the broadest public-private Wi-Fi partnerships to build out free service across the city. Its LinkNYC plan started converting 7,500 pay phone stations into Wi-Fi hotspots with super-fast internet. 

Officials there have promised that by the end of the year, all 277 underground subway stations will have Wi-Fi. Only about half are outfitted today. 

“I want to be able to sit in a seat. I want to be able to listen to my music. I want to be able to make a telephone call, be connected to Wi-Fi,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) said during an announcement earlier this year. “I’ve come to expect that.”

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