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The Geography of Broadband Access

As big fans of maps, data, and infrastructure, we are pretty enamored with the interactive website of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) National Broadband Plan. High speed telecommunications infrastructure is critical for boosting business growth, enhancing education and scientific research, improving public safety services, and reliably providing for emergency communications in times of crisis. It also has the potential to reshape the physical landscape of America, connecting communities in ways never before possible through telecommuting and videoconferencing. The FCC’s plan is to accelerate and facilitate the deployment of broadband nationwide

Part of the effort, smartly, is an ongoing assessment of the gaps in broadband service (defined as households without access to networks capable of four megabit-per-second download speeds.) According to the FCC only about 7 million of the approximately 129 million housing units in the U.S. today are without high speed broadband access. That’s just 5 percent.

It is generally understood that most of the unserved are located in areas of low housing density and/or rural areas. We decided to check this out and compared the FCC data to the classification system we created for the 100 largest metropolitan areas in our State of Metropolitan America report. The counties are broken down thusly: one category for primary cities, four for suburbs (high density, mature, emerging, and exurban), and one category for counties outside of the top 100 metros. The typology is based on the share of the population living in more densely populated areas.

Our analysis confirms the suspicions. Over 82 percent of the housing units lacking broadband access are outside of the 100 largest metros. Within metropolitan America, broadband coverage is amazingly robust. Only 1.2 million of these housing units are without access. That’s 98 percent coverage. In some metro areas—like Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and Washington—the FCC reports that coverage is almost ubiquitous.

The farther out on the metropolitan fringe, the scarcer broadband becomes. Coverage for primary cities, mature suburbs, and high density suburbs is around 99 percent. It’s a little less in emerging suburbs: around 96 percent. But outside of those places it falls off pretty sharply. Thirteen percent of super low-density exurban counties are without broadband access. This is actually less than those counties outside of the 100 largest metros: 12 percent.

It is important to note that this data is presented on the county level, so we don’t know where the gaps are within those counties. Many have pointed out the lack of new broadband lines in low-income urban communities, for example. And potential broadband access is far different from actual access, nor does it portend that there are telecommunications devices on the other end.

But the direct connection between broadband availability and density is it is strikingly clear. Rural areas—which do not always need the same kind of infrastructure as densely populated urban areas—do, in fact, need access to affordable broadband services to support quality health care, education, and agricultural uses. These are the places the FCC is targeting with their estimate of a $24 billion gap in service, not all of which will be supplied by private investment. Where, precisely, it will come from is unknown at this point.

The gap in exurban areas is more surprising. These are the places on the metropolitan fringe that would appear to be the best candidates for deployment of new technologies to help workers telecommute and telework. Yet the share of exurban households that report they work from home is no higher than other community types. While they do carpool to a greater extent, the lack of broadband deployment in the exurbs is a missed opportunity to ease the pressures of the daily commute.