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Microsoft Speeds Show Broadband Use Is Far Lower than Access

Much of the government conversation surrounding high-speed Internet revolves around who has access to it. But new data from Microsoft shows that access and actual use of broadband are two very different things.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission says 92 percent of the country has access to high-speed Internet.

But the number of people who high-speed Internet providers could serve versus the number of people they actually serve are very different — whether because people can’t justify the cost, because providers haven’t built all the infrastructure necessary to serve them or other reasons.

The gap between access and use was made clear recently when Microsoft released a data visualization comparing the FCC’s broadband map to its own internal data. To get a sense of how many people use broadband, Microsoft looked at anonymized data for how fast its customers were able to access and update the company’s products, including Windows, Office, Xbox and Bing.

The map breaks down broadband by county, providing highlights of the counties in each state where the gap between the FCC data and the Microsoft data is widest.

Overall, the FCC estimates that 92 percent of Americans have access to broadband Internet, while Microsoft found that about 49 percent of Americans use broadband. A separate study from Pew Research found that 65 percent of Americans use broadband at home.

There are a few reasons why the gap might be so big, according to an email from John Kahan, Microsoft's chief data analytics officer.

“There are two issues with the FCC data. The first is that it likely overcounts access due to the way the information is collected — Form 477 asks providers if they could provide service — if the answer is yes, even if no service is available, it is counted as having access,” he wrote. “The second is the scope — the data is based on census blocks, which can span thousands of miles in some instances. If a single customer in that block has broadband, the entire block is counted as having service.”

All three data sets painted a picture of less access to high-speed Internet in rural areas. Myriad policy and funding efforts have sought to address that problem for years.

“Even the FCC’s subscription data suggests a discrepancy between what’s reported as access and what is actually served in rural areas around the United States,” Kahan wrote.

Footnote from Microsoft:

These Power BI views illustrate broadband availability (based on the FCC’s data¹) compared with broadband usage (based on Microsoft’s data²) across the United States. The visualizations can be filtered at the state, county, and/or congressional district levels.

¹ FCC broadband report 2018 located here.

² Internal data from September 2018 using the FCC’s broadband download speed benchmark of 25Mbps.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.
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