US Broadband Infrastructure: The Availability Gap

By Radhika Shivaprasad, Heather Sabel, Sam Kornstein

COVID-19 has highlighted the impact of America’s Digital Divide: even though 84% of Americans[i] report that the internet has been important during the pandemic for work, education, and basic services like healthcare, many households still don’t have access to a baseline (25/3 Mbps) connection. It is of growing importance to ensure that all Americans can access and afford broadband.

We recently published a report in collaboration with ACA Connects that evaluates the extent to which there are remaining gaps in America’s broadband infrastructure availability.

Gigabit has grown by 50% since 2018 while baseline and below has been relatively stagnant

There has been a 50% increase in gigabit availability between June 2018 and June 2020. Approximately 90% of this growth comes from households that already had access to above-baseline speeds.

Meanwhile, the baseline and below group remained fairly stagnant over the same period, decreasing from 12% to 9%. So, the number of unserved and underserved households has been declining, but progress has been slow. This contrast between the growth of gigabit and the stagnation of baseline and below indicates that while competition continues to drive private investment in broadband infrastructure upgrades, market forces alone haven’t been sufficient to drive improved speeds in more sparsely populated areas that have higher network deployment costs per household.

And this stagnation only considers available speeds as reported by the FCC – this broadband availability data reflects the maximum speeds available to any given census block, and it’s a known limitation of FCC reporting methodology that there are households within census blocks that do not have the maximum reported speeds available.

So, in addition to the 3.8M households that are known to the FCC to be unserved (i.e., that do not have access to at least 25/3 Mbps, the FCC’s current broadband standard), studies suggest there may be as many as 8.2M additional unserved households that are in census blocks reported to be served, for a total of 12M unserved households across the US.

There are currently a number of policy proposals under discussion aimed at reducing this infrastructure availability gap – policymakers will need to consider the best way to balance spending across both this gap, and the adoption gap, or the ability of families to afford broadband when it is available.

To learn more about the state of US broadband affordability and adoption and the cost of closing these gaps, read our full report.<>

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[i]  “53% of Americans Say the Internet Has Been Essential During the COVID-19 Outbreak”, Pew Research Center, April 2020