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A Parched Country: Study Shows Digital Deserts Exist

by Jessica Denson, Communications Director
Connected Nation

05 No Providers 300x225 Figure 1 - grey indicates areas with no providers  (click image to view larger version)

Louisville, Ky. (September 18, 2019) – Take a close look at the map (figure 1) to your right. Everything in gray is an area without a single internet service provider (ISP)—these are what we refer to as “Digital Deserts.”

Each gray area is filled with families, businesses, libraries and schools, and whole communities that do not have access to the resources and opportunities high-speed internet (broadband) can provide.

This map was developed during a study that was just released entitled “A Look at Broadband Access, Providers, and Technology.” It examines and analyzes broadband coverage data released by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and what researchers from Purdue University and Oklahoma State University found is concerning.

According to the study’s authors, “often overlooked or even unknown until now is that of the 21.3 million people without access to 25/3 [high-speed internet] as reported by the FCC in their latest broadband progress report, almost five million people and/or 2.2 million housing units had access to no provider. More worrisome, more than two-thirds of these unserved housing units were in rural areas. These digital deserts should be targeted for urgent broadband related investments.”

Dr. Brian Whitacre, a professor in the department of Agricultural Economics at OSU, and Dr. Roberto Gallardo, the Assistant Director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development at Purdue University in Indiana, worked together on the research. They not only looked at who had access to high-speed internet, but also the quality of service consumers received, the technology that is available, and where companies are providing service.

“In rural portions of the country, smaller providers serve a larger portion of households than the nation’s six largest providers do,” said Chris McGovern, Director of Research Development, Connected Nation.

01 All Top 6 Providers 300x225 Figure 2 - indicates coverage of the nation's top six providers  (click image to view larger version)

The map to your left (figure 2) gives you a quick snapshot of where the nation’s top six providers—AT&T, Charter, Comcast, CenturyLink, Verizon and Frontier—are offering coverage. You can see that the East Coast is lit up with beautiful colors as is much of the West Coast. But move through the western states and you see large swaths of white. These areas indicate places that either have no internet service provider (ISP) or are not served by those top six providers.

“With so many rural residents relying on smaller ISPs, it’s important that we support these smaller companies,” McGovern explained. “At the same time, smaller providers, which need more support, often find it the most difficult to pay for the time and expertise to successfully navigate the oft-byzantine state and federal grant requirements. We need to make sure that grants and other resources are more accessible for every provider, large or small, to expand broadband coverage.”

In addition, it’s a lack of competition for rural areas that’s impacting another area of need: Quality of service (QoS).

More Important Than Access                          

The FCC defines broadband (high-speed internet) speeds at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. Putting that in layman’s terms, per the agency’s guidelines, a 1Mbps download speed is needed for emails or general browsing and a 25 Mbps download speed is needed for video streaming. But not everyone is getting the service they need.

Pcrd Roberto Headshot 300x200 Dr. Roberto Gallardo co-authored the study

“Quality of service is becoming more important than mere access,” said Gallardo. “Typically, the conversation now is mostly driven by having internet access, period. Be it fiber, DSL, cable, etc., as long as the provider says it is advertised at 25/3 you are served. However, as we know, these technologies offer vastly different qualities of service. Therefore, it is important to shift the conversation from having access to internet to ‘Is your internet technology giving you the quality of service you expect and need?’”

He argues that this has tremendous implications for the overbuilding concern providers often cite when state or federal funds are available to update or deploy broadband infrastructure.

“We have learned that quality of service improves if more than one provider overlaps in a census block,” Gallardo adds.

This need for some healthy competition is, perhaps, even more important when you’re talking about rural communities.

“It stands out that one in four rural households only have one choice of internet provider, while an additional quarter (nearly 16 million rural residents) do not have access to broadband at all,” McGovern said.

The study also looks at which technology offers better quality based on the median speeds for broadband.

06b Provider Comp And Covered Layer 300x225 Figure 3 - provider comp and covered layer (click image to view larger version)

“While a combination of technologies will be needed to fully eliminate the Digital Divide, it is good to know which one performs best, given that resources are scarce and technology applications change quickly,” Gallardo said. “This also goes to the crux of the argument: If DSL is already there, why not let other technologies take root? Why is this considered ‘overbuilding’?”

DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) brings high-bandwidth information to homes and business via ordinary copper telephone lines. It has the largest footprint in the country but also has the lowest median speeds.

Meanwhile, fiber-optic lines offer the highest speeds, but “only a little less than one-third of homes in the nation had access to it.” That number drops in rural areas where nearly seven out of eight residents are unable to connect to fiber service.

“Even when they can access to the minimum speed threshold for broadband service, rural residents typically have access to slower advertised speeds than their urban peers, regardless of which broadband platform they are using,” McGovern said. “This puts those rural residents at a disadvantage, even when it looks like they are getting similar service.”

Overstated Data: Coverage is Not What It Seems  

The FCC gathers its data on internet coverage and speeds by having providers submit what’s called a Form 477. Gallardo says the data used for this study does have “serious limitations but nonetheless provides rich information.” Those limitations include the level at which data is gathered.

Mcgovern Chris 01 683x1024 Headroom 200x300 Chris McGovern, Director of Research Development, Connected Nation

“This report does a good job highlighting the gaps in broadband coverage as well as the shortcomings of the FCC’s current attempts to report broadband availability,” McGovern explains. “The FCC reports residential availability at a census block level, meaning that if only one household in a census block is covered, the entire block is considered to be served. In rural areas, where census blocks can span multiple miles, this kind of reporting can grossly overstate the number of households that have access to broadband service.”

In addition, speeds reported by providers are maximum advertised speeds and not actual internet speeds. Lastly, the data is carrier self-reported and not validated by consumers or third-party entities.

“This means if a provider erroneously reports its coverage, there is often no way to double-check the accuracy of the reported coverage,” McGovern added.

Per the study, “these limitations tend to overestimate coverage of broadband technology.”

You can read the full report by clicking here.