Today the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released an interactive map illustrating who doesn’t have access to the FCC’s recommended minimum broadband speeds. Folks, look above: It’s all the red areas.
The “Indicators of Broadband Need” tool lets you apply different filters to a U.S. map based on aggregated data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the FCC, internet speed-testing companies M-Lab and Ookla, and Microsoft. The highlighted areas are those with median broadband speeds below the FCC’s recommended benchmark speeds of 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload—a standard that many consider to be outdated in the modern area. If you want to feel particularly depressed about the state of infrastructure in this country, you can also toggle on filters to see where underserved areas overlap with high levels of poverty, tribal lands, and communities where more than 25% of households do not have access to broadband, computers, smartphones, or tablets. Having tried all of them, rest assured there’s no scenario where broadband access in the U.S. looks good.
“Broadband is no longer nice to have. It’s need to have. To ensure that every household has the internet access necessary for success in the digital age, we need better ways to accurately measure where high-speed service has reached Americans and where it has not,” said FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in an NTIA press release.
The pandemic underscored the importance of fast broadband. According to Pew Research, 53% of Americans said the internet was “essential” during the pandemic for remote work and online learning. The reality is the pandemic shed light on the millions who didn’t have adequate or affordable access to the internet. You’d think that would inspire some legislative initiative. And it has—just not in the way you’d hope, particularly with regard to municipal broadband.
Municipal broadband has been touted as a way to ease the digital divide by providing fast and cheap internet as a public utility. Its detractors, however, argue that it’s an inappropriate use of public funding and that taxpayers get saddled with the cost of maintaining service. In February, House Republicans introduced a bill that would prevent cities nationwide from establishing their own networks if they were in an area served by more than one commercial ISP. Meanwhile, in Ohio, Republicans are pushing to ban municipal broadband for roughly 98% of the state. The amendment in question defines broadband access as 10 Mbps downloads and 1 Mbps uploads—well below the FCC’s benchmark. While those speeds might suffice for casual web browsing for a household of one person, it’s not enough for smooth group Zooms or streaming Netflix.
Using the NTIA’s map, you can see there’s plenty of counties in Ohio that fall below the 25/3 Mbps standard, and that many of those areas also happen to be in communities where 20% or more of households are below the poverty line. One might say municipal broadband might be a good solution for those folks.
As grim as this looks, all is not completely lost. As part of the American Jobs Plan, President Biden has proposed a $100 billion investment to bring “affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American.” But the bill is facing strong opposition from some lawmakers and lobbyists who say it’s bad for competition. The FCC also announced in October that it was planning to set aside $9 billion over the next decade to fund 5G wireless broadband expansion in rural America—though the FCC’s inaccurate service maps are a major hurdle. Others have floated the idea of satellite internet services like Starlink as a potential solution, though that’s also unlikely to bridge the digital divide. OK, so maybe it is pretty grim.