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As Broadband Deserts Recede, Cost of Service Still a Question

A new report by BroadbandNow indicates as many as 22 million U.S. residents still lack access to broadband, an improvement from 2020. But as Internet service improves, affordability in rural areas remains an issue.

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Broadband access in the U.S. is improving but connectivity is overstated, with as many as 22 million residents still lacking high-speed Internet connections, a research group has found.

A report released Tuesday by BroadbandNow, which focuses on documenting and understanding the digital divide, follows up on work it did in 2020, manually checking Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data to estimate up to 42 million Americans then lacked the ability to purchase broadband Internet.

The report, titled Broadband Availability Is Overstated in Every State, finds conditions are now improved — but a disparity still exists between its numbers and the FCC, which found roughly 21 million Americans don’t have access to broadband. And based on checking broadband availability at nearly 65,000 addresses across the continental U.S., BroadbandNow researchers found the overreporting of high-speed Internet availability “continues to be rampant, and exists in every state, across every technology type.”

The methodology around reporting broadband was recently changed at the federal level, and is now thought to be more accurate than it was five years ago, said Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief of BroadbandNow and author of the report. In the past, he said, Internet service providers self-reported their plan and availability data to the FCC on a biannual basis. The process used the census block as the level of granularity, which could vary in size depending on population density.

“Providers could go in and mark entire census blocks as covered for broadband if even just one address within that census block was covered,” Cooper explained. “This was a major issue. This was an issue for over a decade.”

New research by BroadbandNow aims to better understand how mapping data has been improved, and is “trying to determine, really, how much of an improvement it is,” said Cooper.

Over the last six months, the organization manually checked the availability of broadband across the lower 48 U.S. states, then compared those findings with the FCC’s mapping data.

Good, accurate mapping data is important, broadband advocates say, because the funding states receive as part of the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) grant program is tied to the mapping data. BEAD is the $42 billion federal program charged with expanding broadband infrastructure as part of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Money flows directly from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to states, with state broadband offices taking the lead on administering the funds. The FCC has been at work determining the new broadband coverage maps; and, through them, state funding allocations.

“States are now embroiled in this sort of elongated challenge process where they’re looking at this map fabric data ... and they are engaging in a variety of methods to sort of challenge that data,” Cooper said, noting the data will be used to determine the final amount of funding awarded to states.

“So states have a vested interest in making sure that the data in their state is as accurate as possible, because the whole point of the BEAD program is to really go after what we call those broadband deserts — those areas that have traditionally been most unserved by other prior programs,” he added.

Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Technology & Energy, speaking on the Ask Me Anything podcast last month hosted by BroadbandBreakfast, a broadband research and advocacy group, reflected on how the COVID-19 pandemic did more to expose the expansiveness of “broadband deserts,” and on the need for a national effort at expanding infrastructure.

“So we’re in this moment where we’re finally committed, and funding infrastructure in many of the places that don’t have it,” said Hovis.

What remains to be seen, said Karen Lightman, executive director of Metro21: Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, is just how affordable those broadband plans will be to rural residents.

“It’s really up to the states that are making these decisions,” Lightman said in an interview.

Cooper, from BroadbandNow, agreed, saying the cost of the service plans and how that cost affects coverage is still somewhat of an open question.

“When we think about the digital divide, I think, for the past 10 years we’ve really squarely focused on the infrastructure problem — those sort of broadband deserts, [the] haves and the have-nots — and that’s very important,” he reflected. “But now as we approach more and more ubiquity of broadband, we really need to start thinking about the affordability side, and the equity side as well.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.