Everyone knows the broadband in the United States isn’t very good.
Significant portions of the country aren’t wired for high-speed Internet at all, and where it is available, it often isn’t as fast as broadband in Asia and parts of Europe.
But while everyone knows that our broadband infrastructure is bad, no one knows exactly how bad it is.
For years, Internet service providers have blocked efforts to publicize information about broadband availability, ostensibly, to protect themselves from their competitors.
The current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has made improving broadband — and the information we have about it — its top priority. Last week, the agency released the most comprehensive report on broadband availability to date, including a list of all U.S. counties without access to broadband.
The list is based on information submitted by service providers in 2008. A county was considered unserved if less than 1% of households subscribed to service offering download speeds of at least 4 megabits-per-second and upload speeds of at least 1 megabit-per-second.
Obviously, that’s a very low threshold, the data is two years old, and the methodology leaves plenty of room for error. Despite all that, this is far better than what existed until now.
So, who’s still stuck with dial-up Internet?
Biloxi, Mississippi, one of Harrison's county seats, has had a rough run in recent years.
First, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the town, as you can see here. Then the BP leak dumped oil on its beaches.
To top it all off: shoddy Internet.
There is nothing surprising about seeing the county that includes El Centro make this list. As of March 2010, El Centro has the highest unemployment rate of any U.S. city, at 27.3%.
Imperial County jobs are generally in either government or agriculture, and the latter are seasonal. Fostering modern, stable industry in the area won't be easy without Internet.
Corson makes up the bulk of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which also encompasses Sioux County in North Dakota.
Sioux made the FCC's list as well, as did many, many other counties with reservations on them. In fact, the FCC found that 'only 12.5 per cent of all households on Native Homeland areas subscribe to a broadband service faster than dial-up compared to 56 per cent of all households nationwide.'
Ector county seat Odessa is best known for its high school football, depicted in the book-turned-movie-turned-television-series Friday Night Lights.
Whatever else fame has done for the town, it hasn't brought broadband.
Puerto Rico is one of 'the most advanced telecom markets in Latin America' by many metrics, but quality broadband is sadly lagging.
Maybe it's just this picture, but somehow we don't feel as badly about this one.
In 2008, the census bureau found that a whopping 18% of Jasper's residents were living below the poverty line. We doubt the past two years have improved matters much.
Those sorts of numbers don't look so attractive to broadband providers.
Appomattox, Virginia, was the site of Robert E. Lee's final defeat and surrender at the end of the Civil War.
And now they don't have decent broadband. It's been a tough few centuries.
If, like Finland, you think everyone should have a right to broadband access, we have one word for you: Alaska.
Bristol Bay is home to an important fishing industry, and gets 50% of the credit (along with ESPN's Bristol, CT headquarters) for the name of Sarah Palin's eldest daughter.
It is also home to a grand total of 953 people, and is on the coast of Alaska, hardly the easiest place to build out infrastructure to.
Universal broadband would be lovely in theory, but in a country as spread out as the United States, we should probably be going for the silver medal on this issue.
As we said at the outset, the FCC's latest data is far from perfect. We've focused so far on areas where the new data broadly confirms the bad news we already had from other sources. But, to emphasise just how badly we need better data on broadband access, here are two implausible entrants to the FCC's list of unserved areas. First up:
Wake County, home to North Carolina's capital, Raleigh. It would be pretty shocking if Raleigh weren't served, but not quite as shocking as...
Even more egregious than Raleigh: Mecklenburg, home to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Mecklenburg is the most populous county in the state, and by far the most densely populated. It contains multiple colleges and universities. It even has an NBA franchise (again.)
So what's going on here?
The FCC confirms that this isn't a typo, but it can't yet release any of the underlying data which might help clear this up. Certainly, if this were based on 2010 data, Charlotte wouldn't appear: Time Warner now offers 50 Mbps service there.
Still, it's hard to believe that even in 2008, less than 1% of the population had access to 4 Mbps service, especially since according to the FCC's older methodology, 100% of Mecklenburg is served.
Such is the state of the available data.
- The depressingly large number of Americans without access to broadband are largely where you'd expect them to be: in poor, rural areas. Native American governed lands are especially bad.
- The FCC is finally releasing comprehensive data on broadband availability in the United States, after years of interference from service providers. The newest data is far better than anything publicly available until now.
- The new data is nevertheless a far cry from comprehensive. We know that U.S. broadband is bad, but we still don't know just how bad it is. More and better data from the FCC is on the way.