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Broadband Availability Relatively High in U.S., but Gaps Remain

A new report by the Vernonburg Group finds access to broadband is not generally inhibited by demographic factors — but instead others like location and type of land.

Broadband Tower
Yes, broadband availability in the U.S. has some notable coverage gaps, but a new report on coverage data finds it relatively well distributed across race, income and other demographic groups — with other types of disparity coming to light.

“Even in very high-poverty areas, roughly the same percentages of people have access to broadband than those folks who are living in very low-poverty areas,” said Paul Garnett, founder and CEO at the Vernonburg Group, during a panel discussion Wednesday organized by Broadband Breakfast, a policy and advocacy group. The group conducts research and analysis of broadband issues and last week released a paper titled Achieving Internet for All: Socioeconomics and Fixed Broadband in the U.S.

In fact, only about 7 percent of households in the United States do not have access to basic broadband, Garnett said, noting broadband accessibility is not the same as broadband adoption — because about 20 percent of households, even when broadband is available, do not sign up for it. The cost of Internet service plans, the quality of service and other concerns can also influence that gap.

“This is an important distinction — broadband availability and broadband adoption. You really can’t solve the broadband gap, or the digital divide, without addressing both the infrastructure problem and the adoption problem,” Garnett said.

Expanding broadband accessibility and adoption has become a top policy direction across states and local jurisdictions. The federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program is making more than $42 billion available to 56 states and U.S. territories to help build out broadband in unserved areas. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has approved digital equity plans from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, Alan Davidson, NTIA assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, said Thursday on X.

But broadband availability is still lacking on tribal lands, the Vernonburg Group’s research found, regardless of income: “In all of those settings, Native Americans have less access to broadband than the others,” Garnett said.

And perhaps one of the largest divides in the distribution of broadband accessibility is the urban and rural distribution of the technology. Rural areas often present challenges related to customer density — as in, too few customers in relation to the deployment of the infrastructure — and geographic obstacles like mountains and forest lands.

The most common technology available is cable-based broadband, available to about 87 percent of households, the study found. Fiber broadband, considered the gold standard, is available to only about 50 percent of households — but fiber investment is driving that number up, Garnett said, indicating fiber is deployed less frequently in locations with higher rates of poverty.

Moving forward with an expanded build-out of broadband infrastructure, and a better understanding of what’s needed to grow wider adoption, is part of the overall maturity of the “broadband for all” ethos, said Kathryn de Wit, project director for the Broadband Access Initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The next set of policy questions, she said, should explore how states are going to incorporate broadband expansion and equity data, and the investments in technology, into existing strategies related to economic development, workforce development or telehealth expansion.

“We are at such a pivotal moment, where everyone may have access to that foundational technology that can help lift them up. But it has to be integrated in with these other strategies as well,” said de Wit.
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.