NTCA, the rural broadband association is out with a new study on rural broadband adoption. The study is a timely reminder of the consistent and increasing demand for rural broadband in the US. The study outlines how rural America stacks up relative to the rest of the country and the rest of the world in terms of broadband access, and the reality is they aren’t stacking up that well. Three in ten adults in the US can’t use the internet at home and connecting those remaining homes will be difficult.
The constant refrain from the biggest broadband providers is that it isn’t economical to connect the rural outlays of the flyover and other states because there aren’t enough people to support its high-margin subscription plans. They say this against the backdrop of steadily whittling down capex nationwide, including urban areas despite room for improvement in both. This is also while simultaneously coordinating a national lobbying effort to beat back municipal networks and Google Fiber.
Leaving aside still more efforts to stop net neutrality, the report data is compelling on many fronts. Currently the US ranks 15th among developed countries for broadband adoption. Four years into the National Broadband Plan’s stated goal of 100% adoption, the slowdown in build out, combined with efforts to halt municipal expansion is troubling. The report notes the disparity as laid out by the FCC in their recent and eight broadband report (see image below) – in urban areas 98.2% of Americans have access to 3Mbps broadband service, whereas only 76.3% of rural Americans do. Put another way, “rural Americans are more than 13 times more likely to lack access to fixed broadband than Americans in non-rural areas.”
These findings were corroborated by a similar NTIA broadband penetration study in May. The availability and adoption rates in tribal lands are often lower. Sure, some of this is demographics based, the elderly for example, are less likely to sign up for broadband but access remains a critical issue. Opting out and being unable to opt in are different things.
The NTCA points out that there are several barriers to adoption beyond disinterest and access. For areas with access, adoption can still be hindered by price and ability. Non adopters cited both reasons as issues holding them back. The paper also looked at the use of smartphones and also showed that while helpful, they aren’t a panacea for solving the gaps. The solutions, NTCA says is a combination of build-out, education, public-private partnerships, and continued outreach to help would-be adopters sign up once they get access.
“One of the more challenging realities of striving for ubiquitous broadband adoption is that the final third of the population will be the hardest to reach,” the paper says. “This remaining group of non-?adopters tends to be older, less educated and at lower income levels than those who have already embraced the online world. Yet, in many ways these are the very segments of society that have the most to gain from the Internet, whether through obtaining higher quality health care or pursuing a more rewarding job. Encouraging more of them to become broadband adopters will benefit all.”