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Do Low-Income Households Get Slow Broadband by Design?

With the unveiling of the National Broadband Map last week, focus has again turned to broadband access. While the obvious conclusion from the map is that urban and suburban households are more likely to be in the service area of broadband providers, mere availability is not the only way to measure access. 

Price and actual (rather than advertised) connection speeds are also very important measures of broadband access. A recent study by the Investigative Reporting Workshop (IRW) at American University highlighted how these factors can vary within metropolitan areas. While their methodology is not perfect, it is a rare peak into the secretive relationship between price paid and actual broadband product received (see the Washington Post article about the study here).

The IRW study looked at web-based connection speed tests conducted by residents of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area by ZIP code, and the prices they reported paying for their broadband connection (you can explore a map of the tests, with their associated costs, here). Dividing the speed by the price, IRW reported the costs per megabit per second (Mbps). 

The authors found that even though residents of lower-income ZIP codes often pay less per month, they pay much more per Mbps. Cost per Mbps was only $9.58 in the 25 wealthiest ZIP codes in the study, compared to more than three times as much in the 25 poorest ZIP codes ($31.17). Yet the average monthly bill among the poorest ZIP codes was still 93 percent of what the wealthiest ZIP codes paid. 

Some of this difference may be due to differences in computer equipment in poorer households versus wealthier ones. However, it seems likely that most of the difference can be attributed to poorer internet infrastructure in these ZIP codes. 

The price of speed is increasingly important in our connected world. Whether it enables rural workers to work remotely or allows a local company to develop globally, access to the internet--and in particular high-speed internet--is increasingly important if America is to compete in the emerging next economy. Yet the United States currently lags behind many developed and developing nations in terms of broadband access. President Obama emphasized the role of broadband when he called for bringing 4G service to 98 percent of Americans within in the next five years in the State of the Union address, and FCC Chairman Genachowski reiterated this goal in a recent speech. Where we go from here, and who shares in the benefits, is up to Congress.