Broadband Internet access is growing in importance, but some regions are falling behind

August 6 – The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted an indisputable fact about the United States today: Access to a high-quality Internet service is key to full participation in society and the economy.

As workplaces and schools move online and families increasingly rely on Internet-enabled services such as e-commerce and streaming platforms, those with good Internet service have been better able to manage the transition than those without.

But unfair access to high-speed internet has been a problem for much longer than the past two years. Policy makers and business leaders – particularly from low-income rural communities – have long advocated greater investment in broadband infrastructure to unlock more economic opportunities in disadvantaged areas.

These efforts, along with access issues raised during the pandemic, have inspired significant action over the past two years. Federal COVID relief legislation such as the CARES Act and the US bailout included money to support broadband expansion, and a $65 billion investment in broadband was a key component of a bipartisan infrastructure package signed last November.

The importance of connecting more Americans has grown as the Internet has become a pervasive part of society and the economy over time. Beginning in the 1990s, the Internet moved from primarily government and academic uses to large-scale communications, business, and other uses. By the year 2000, more than half of adults in the United States reported using the Internet in some capacity, and innovations such as e-commerce and smartphones have encouraged greater adoption in the past two decades. Today, 93% of American adults use the Internet, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center.

While internet use is certainly common, some residents and parts of the country may face greater barriers to reliable internet access. Experts refer to the “digital divide” between those who have reliable access to Internet technologies and those who do not. Low-income, rural, and minority families tend to have less access to high-quality Internet service and related technologies. In some cases, these families cannot afford the service, but in others, the Internet providers may not serve their communities at all for financial or logistical reasons.

The Southeast is the region of the United States that lags behind the rest of the country when it comes to broadband Internet access, along with access to computers at home. In Mississippi, for example, just over half (50.1%) of all households have broadband Internet access, and only about 64.2% have a desktop or laptop computer. In contrast, many states in the Northeast and West have better access to technology. New Hampshire leads all states in the share of households with broadband Internet access, at 79.9%, and Utah leads in the share of households with a computer, at 87.5%.

Furthermore, there is some evidence that countries with fewer households able to access the Internet have worse Internet quality overall. Countries with a higher percentage of households with broadband also tend to have higher average download speeds. There is a similar but weaker correlation between the percentage of households with a computer and average download speeds.

Missouri ranks 28, with an average download speed of 101.3 Mbps, which is 14.9% slower than the national average. The country also lacks households with broadband internet. It’s a problem raised by Buchanan County commissioners such as Lee Sawyer, who see rural areas falling behind the digital curve.

“You really take communication for granted, if you have good communication, if you don’t have good communication, the opportunities are limited,” Sawyer said in a previous interview.

Many of the states that drive download speeds are densely populated and have strong economies, which helps service providers justify the cost of building infrastructure. The states in the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions are among those with the fastest internet, but residents of other thriving and populous states like California, Texas, and Florida also have excellent internet speeds.

Internet speed data used in this analysis is from HighSpeedInternet.com’s Fastest and Slowest Internet Speeds Report. Internet and computer access statistics are from the US Census Bureau and Pew Research Center. For the purpose of this analysis, statistics for broadband access include high-speed Internet subscriptions, such as cable or DSL, and do not include cellular data plans. To determine which countries have the fastest internet, researchers at HotDog.com ranked the states based on average download speed measured in megabits per second.

Andrew Gough of News-Press NOW contributed to this report.

Andrew Gaug can be reached at andrew.gaug@newspressnow.com.

Follow him on Twitter: @NPNOWGaug

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