As part of its ongoing efforts to survey and promote broadband adoption, the Federal Communications Commission has published a report detailing how many people are still without access to non-mobile broadband internet — and why many people are choosing not to subscribe to it. While carriers are making strides in expanding access, the FCC says overall broadband coverage still fell short of expectations, while a minority worries the Commission is chasing an unreachable goal.
If you're an American who really wants broadband, you're probably in luck: only about 6 percent (19 million) didn't have access to internet that met the specifications as of June 2011. When looking specifically at rural areas, that number got much higher, jumping to about 24 percent. On Tribal land, which may or may not be rural, about 29 percent didn't have access. But the overall picture improved from 2010, when a total of 26 million Americans couldn't get broadband at 4Mbps or higher.
In 2011, only 6 percent of Americans didn't have access to benchmark-level broadband
Mobile broadband access has grown as well. In 2010, most Americans had access to some kind of mobile network, but only about 80 percent could buy service with speeds of 3Mbps or better, and a mere quarter could get speeds of 6Mbps. A year later, only 5 million (about 5 percent of the population) had no access to 768Kbps networks, 94 percent could get 3Mbps or better, and two-thirds were covered by 6Mbps networks.
Adoption of fixed broadband, however, is still relatively low. The report found a definite uptick in people subscribing to broadband at several speed levels, but the number of people subscribing to broadband when it was available hovered at slightly over 60 percent for access of at least 768Kbps and 40 percent for 3Mbps speeds. Predictably, adoption in a given area seems to rise in line with median income. In the poorest areas, an average of 17 percent of people subscribe to benchmark-speed broadband when it's available; in the richest, that number rises to 41 percent.
Broadband adoption correlates with income, and monthly bills are a barrier to many households
In rural areas particularly, it's still important to keep building out basic infrastructure, something the FCC is focusing on with its Connect America Fund. But if you see the internet as an important communication method — similar to landline telephones in the past century — the bigger problem seems to be getting people to connect to existing networks. The report cites plenty of reasons for low adoption, including a lack of digital literacy and the perceived high cost of service. In some cases, having a single provider means there's little incentive to compete; in others, families (including those who don't have computers at all) would probably be unable to afford service regardless. It's also expensive to deploy service in large states with low population density. There are plans to fix this, like an updated version of a long-running phone subsidy program, but the US has long lagged in broadband performance, offering lower speeds for higher prices.
FCC Chair Julius Genachowski says that the report "reflects the huge strides that both the private and public sector have made to extend broadband, while also explaining that there’s more work to do," and two Commissioners commended it. Two others, however, disagreed with its conclusion that broadband was not being rolled out sufficiently. Commissioner Robert McDowell called the shift in focus from deployment to adoption "mission creep," arguing that the FCC was trying to "create a pretext to justify more regulation." Despite these objections, the report remains a comprehensive look at the state of the networks most of us take for granted.