Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Got Broadband? Not Sure? There’s a Map for That.

When President Obama came into office, one of his first significant acts on the tech front was a $7.8 billion broadband stimulus effort, aimed at handing out grants and loan guarantees for projects meant to bring fast Internet connections to areas where coverage was scarce or nonexistent.

Nestled within that amount was $350 million to draw a map showing a detailed, block-by-block inventory of the existing broadband infrastructure in the U.S. It took two years, but the results were unveiled by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration today on the Web site

This is far from the first time someone has tried to tackle the problem of mapping existing broadband pipes in order to show where service is lacking. But prior attempts have generally been haphazard because service providers tend to carefully guard the precise maps of their physical plant as competitively sensitive. And prior federal efforts fell short because the maps were based on ZIP codes. If one person in some geographically large but sparsely populated rural ZIP code had access to service, prior federal maps showed that area as “served,” even if the majority of the population didn’t have access. The new map uses the far more granular census tracts.

The map shows some new data that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been following the saga of broadband in America: Anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of Americans lack access to broadband at acceptable speeds. Recall that the Federal Communications Commission last July set a benchmark of 4 megabits per second downstream and 1 MBPS upstream as what it considers acceptable.

Another key finding is that so-called “community anchor institutions” are going without adequate access to broadband. These are schools, libraries and hospitals, where different kinds of services are needed. As a rule of thumb, a school needs about 50 to 100 MBPS for every 1,000 students, and most of the schools surveyed had speeds of 25 MBPS or less, and precious few libraries reported speeds approaching that.

When residential service isn’t available, these are the institutions that people turn to when they need to use the Internet. A few years ago I visited a rural county in Tennessee where the local library had broadband and provided free wireless. If you watched the parking lot after the library was closed you’d often see people pull their cars up with laptops and use the Wi-Fi to work on homework assignments with the kids. Even the local sheriff’s deputies would pull up and use it to check their email.

There was some good news. Alongside the map, the NTIA released a separate report on broadband adoption. It found that 68 percent of households have access to a cable modem, a DSL line or a home fiber connection, up from less than 64 percent a year ago. The usual demographic disparities remain: People living on low incomes or with disabilities, along with seniors, minorities and those with low educational attainment, tend to lag behind other groups in home access. The city-country divide remains as well: 70 percent of city dwellers, versus 60 percent of rural residents, access broadband at home.

But here’s a stat that should surprise you: 28.3 percent of all the people in the nation do not use the Internet, period. That’s down about two percentage points from a year ago, but still means that out of every 25 Americans, seven don’t use the Internet at all. I don’t know about you, but that surprises me.