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The Broad Variation in Broadband

In advance of the March 17th delivery of a National Broadband Plan to Congress, mandated as part of the Recovery Act, the Federal Communications Commission has released a mound of useful data this month. Last week, at an event hosted by Brookings, Chairman Genachowski presented the results of a consumer survey on attitudes towards broadband and views on how to improve access for all. Some major findings:

·        Two thirds of American adults have broadband access at home, but rates vary according to socioeconomic status: of adults whose highest level of education is a high school degree, only 46 percent have access, while 82 percent of college-educated adults do.

·        40 percent of low income households (earning under $20,000 per year) have broadband at home, compared to 52 percent of those with incomes under $50,000 and 87 percent of those with incomes over $50,000.

·        Of the one-third of Americans without access, only 12 percent (or 4 percent of the total population) report that broadband infrastructure simply doesn’t exist where they live. Of the rest who simply choose not to get broadband service, 36 percent cite the high cost.

An earlier tranche of data (available here) reveals striking variation in high-speed internet access across places, measured by the number of residential fixed high-speed connections per 1,000 households in census tracts, zip codes, and counties. When mapped, the data provide a dramatic visualization of just how uneven access to this critical infrastructure actually is.

A few items that struck me off the bat:

·        The Boston-Washington Corridor performs well. In fact, the vast majority of census tracts in all of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and New Jersey register adoption rates upwards of 80 percent. This is the most densely populated urban agglomeration in the country, to be fair, which means that economies of scale in infrastructure provision were probably reached quickly. But such connectivity is important.

·        The metro areas of Upstate New York (and heck, even the Adirondack Park) are well-outfitted too. In fact, analysis of the county-level data that I conducted for another project found that the Albany-Schenectady-Troy, Syracuse, and Rochester metro areas have the highest high-speed internet penetration rates of all large metro areas in the country. Given that the two worst performers were San Antonio and McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas, state policies could account for a significant portion of the variation here.

·        Zoom in closer and another entire layer of information surfaces. Virtually all major metro areas exhibit the same core-periphery pattern: access is uniformly lower in central cities than it is in suburbs.

·        On the whole, generalizing across geographies is difficult. No neat urban-rural or coastal-interior divides emerge, although the Deep South does lag as a region. And while the countryside is littered with oases of connectivity in select small towns and rural counties, places like high-tech Boise, ID, still lag behind their peers.

·        And then there is Michigan. The state is bearing the brunt of an economic transformation that is unremittingly eroding its very economic foundation (manufacturing). The fact that high-speed internet, the fundamental infrastructure of the 21st century economy, is so relatively underprovided in a state that ought to be strategically investing its heart out should raise some red flags in both Lansing and Washington. 

A story from the February 20th edition of The Economist tells a prophetic tale: The small, coal-mining region around Bristol, VA, invested early in optic-fiber internet and has since attracted the likes of Northrop Grumman and CGI, an IT consultancy, with the help of a few good universities and a low cost of living. Regions attempting to bolster themselves against the winds of economic change would be wise take note. Broadband matters.