Oklahoma's Internet Access, Speed Lags Nation

Across the state, nearly half of all Oklahomans lack access to what federal regulators now consider high-speed internet—giving the state one of the poorest rates in the country.

by Jennifer Palmer, The Oklahoman / March 31, 2015
Adair County, Okla. Flickr/Carol Von Canon

(TNS) -- Downtown Pryor delivers free Wi-Fi to all downtown merchants and consumers. The town in northeastern Oklahoma, with less than 9,500 residents, plans to provide free wireless Internet access to the entire town within a few years.

It’s also where technology giant Google operates a sprawling data center complex.

But even in a town as advanced as Pryor, Internet speeds are significantly lower than the new benchmark set earlier this year by the Federal Communications Commission.

“We don’t have access to 25 (Mbps),” Pryor Mayor Jimmy Tramel said. “Three to five megabits is what most people have here.”

Across the state, nearly half (49 percent) of all Oklahomans and 89 percent of those in rural areas lack access to what federal regulators now consider high-speed internet—giving the state one of the poorest rates in the country. Even in urban areas, 29 percent of Oklahomans can’t get broadband.

The FCC earlier this year increased the benchmark speeds to be considered broadband to 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. The previous standard of 4 Mbps/1 Mbps was outdated, regulators determined.

Under the new benchmark, 17 percent of all Americans, or 55 million people, don’t have access to broadband. Like in Oklahoma, the divide is more striking in rural areas: 53 percent of rural Americans (22 million people) can’t get upload speeds of 25 megabits.

The only states ranking worse than Oklahoma for access to high-speed internet were Arkansas, Idaho, Montana, Vermont and West Virginia.

Broadband speeds depend on an infrastructure of fiber-optic cables, which are buried along existing rights of way for highways, railroads or pipelines. Often, a telecommunications company installs the cables then leases space on them to others.

RootMetrics, a firm based in Bellevue, Wash., conducts independent speed tests on the nation’s four wireless carriers—AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile.

The company clocked Verizon at 17.9 Mbps for downloads and 8.2 Mbps for uploads in Tulsa in February, Verizon said; in Oklahoma City, the carrier’s speeds were 15.2 Mbps for downloads and 7 Mbps for uploads. Only AT&T had higher speeds.

RootMetrics says that’s fast—though it still doesn’t meet the new FCC benchmark.

A speed of 20 Mbps is fast enough for basically any mobile activity; at that speed, everyday tasks are accomplished almost instantaneously, according to RootMetrics.

But certain internet users, particularly K-12 schools and universities, require higher speeds to accomplish tasks like simultaneous student testing.

High-speed internet access for schools, especially rural schools, is lacking in our state, said Robert Nordmark, director of network services for OneNet, a division of the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education that provides broadband to nonprofits.

“Twenty-five megabits is definitely on par with where we need to be as far as the state goes,” he said. “With online testing and the way that our content is being delivered to our students, we definitely need to increase the capacity to these K-12s.”

Keeping up with higher speeds requires constant upgrades of infrastructure and hardware, he added.

©2015 The Oklahoman. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC