The Digital Divide: Urban vs. Rural Internet Connections

Posted under: Internet

There's no question that the digital technologies developed over the past half-century have completely changed the world. So much of our lives have moved online that having a solid internet connection has become a requirement for succeeding in modern life; the web is how we communicate, find jobs, shop, meet people, learn, work, and so much more.

However, if you are from an area considered "rural," or if you've ever spent considerable time in one, you know that finding a good internet connection that allows you to use the web the way you want to can at times be quite a challenge.

If you're away from the city for a getaway weekend, this might not matter too much. Still, if you call such an area home, the lack of quality internet can be a real hindrance to your life and can leave you far behind or entirely excluded from the rest of society.

To better understand this problem and its many different nuances, we have put together this report that analyzes the difference between internet connections in urban versus rural areas. We also identified some of the things we need to keep in mind as we attempt to tackle this problem.

The Problem

As usual, we cannot hope to tackle this problem if we don't first understand it. And when it comes to the digital divide that exists between urban and rural communities, there are a few different layers we need to consider, which include:

Access

Most Americans have access to the internet, but when it comes to broadband internet - which the FCC defines as a connection of 25 Mbps or more - the picture is much different. Here are some statistics to consider:

Internet Access Across The U.S.

[FCC, Pew]

That urban residents also see this as an issue is another point of concern, but the gap between city and country-dwellers is pretty dramatic.

Defining Access

One thing that's important to keep in mind when looking at the digital divide between urban and rural communities is how access is defined, as this will have a pretty significant impact on how we understand the issue.

As mentioned, the FCC currently defines broadband internet as 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload (often written shorthand as 25/3), and wireless internet connections, such as that you get from your cell phone, do not count. A few years back, there was a point when they were considering changing this, and many believed this idea was meant to help ease the burden on ISPs, but this didn't happen. The 25/3 definition remained intact.

However, many watchdog groups believe this 25/3 standard set back in 2015, is out of date and should be changed to 100 Mbps to reflect the increased demand we now place on our networks. If this were the case, then the numbers presented here would probably be much more dramatic as few areas in the country regularly experience this kind of speed (although ISPs like to advertise that these speeds are available all over).

For our study, we will continue to define broadband as 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. It's important to remember that this is quickly becoming an outdated standard that would pretty dramatically alter the digital landscape in the United States if changed.

Competition

In general, Americans pay more and have fewer options than similarly-developed countries (those of Europe), and when we look more in detail at this issue, things become quite dismal.

For example, PC Mag analyzed more than 20,000 ZIP codes in the United States and found that 70 percent either have zero or just one option for broadband (25/3) service. When they lowered their threshold to 10 Mbps, still only 30 percent of the ZIP codes studied had three or more options for service.

Interestingly, in economics, it's considered necessary to have at least three firms operating in a market for true competition to take place. Using this frame of reference, we can say 70 percent of the United States lives in an area where the internet market is not competitive. This means that not only is it likely for prices to be higher, but ISPs will also have little incentive to make the needed investments to improve the quality of service they provide to these areas.

Speed

Lastly, and we've already hinted at this, is speed. Having access and competition is great, but it's equally, if not more important, that users have access to the type of internet speeds they need to do what they want to do online.

Based on the research that's already been done, we had a pretty good idea of what we were going to find: rural areas would experience slower speeds.

To test this, we did a few things.

First, we looked at which states had the fastest and slowest median internet connection speeds over the past two years and correlated that with population density.

We chose to look at median download speeds because these numbers reflect the actual performance of networks around the country (the data has been collected based on actual speed tests carried out by users across the US).

Looking at this will help us better understand the issue since ISPs are known to advertise much higher connection speeds than their networks actually provide, helping us gain a clearer picture of the broadband scene in both rural and urban areas.

We also chose to use each state's "population density ranking," meaning a number between 1-50. This was better than using actual population density since it reflects the relativity between each area and tells us how density affects download speeds.

Here's what we found:

Ten States with the Fastest Internet Speeds Compared to their Population Density Ranking

States With Fastest Internet Speeds vs. Population Density

There are very few surprises on this list. Most of the top ten most densely populated cities in the United States ranked in the top ten for internet speeds. The two states in the top ten in terms of density that didn't make it into the top ten for internet speeds were Pennsylvania - 9th in density, 11th in speed - and Ohio - 10th in density but 36th in speed.

That Ohio is so far down on this list, and New Hampshire is so far up it, demonstrates that the story isn't as black and white as it might at first appear. In general, the situation at the top of this list shows that density does seem to impact the download speeds a particular area has access to.

It's noteworthy that in the year 2018-2019, none of the top states had a median download speed that met the minimum definition of broadband according to the FCC. In the following year, just five did, suggesting that while the digital divide between urban and rural communities is undoubtedly important, attention needs to be paid to the nation's broadband capabilities as a whole.

Here's what is happening on the other end of the list:

Ten States with Slowest Internet Speeds Compared to their Population Density Ranking

States With Slowest Internet Speeds vs. Population Density

Most of the top ten most densely populated cities in the United States ranked in the top ten for internet speeds. But in this case, there are a few outliers. Hawaii is by far the most densely populated state, but its distance from the rest of the United States could play a role in its slower internet connections.

These numbers certainly seem to indicate that the digital divide between urban and rural communities is very real, but they also point to something else: its severity. Not one of the states on this list is experiencing download speeds that even approach what the FCC defines as broadband.

The state with the fastest internet on this list, Wyoming, saw a median speed of just 13.35 Mbps last year, which is only a little more than half of the 25 Mbps considered broadband.

In looking at the top and bottom of this list, a trend was emerging that pointed to a rather stark digital divide between urban and rural areas of the country. And when we looked at all 50 states at once, here's what we saw:

Internet Speeds By Population Density Ranking

Population Density Ranking vs. Internet Speeds

This graph and the corresponding line of best fit shows a clear correlation between population and median download speed. There are several outliers, but in general, the trend is pretty clear.

We suspected this might be the case, but it's still disappointing to see how little progress has been made on the quest to close the gap between the different areas of the country and provide access to all.

To check our progress in this mission, we compiled median download speeds for the same states for the year before (1/1/2018-1/1/2019) and correlated the percent change from year to year with each state's population density ranking. Here are the results:

Population Density Ranking vs. Percent Change From 2019 to 2020

Unlike what we found when looking at the median download speed, there is very little correlation between the rate of improvement and the state's population density, except that the least densely populated state saw the smallest (negative) improvement. Delaware, which saw the biggest improvement, is the six most densely populated state in the country.

This is troubling because it suggests that the investment going into improving our internet infrastructure and bringing broadband connections to more people is not necessarily being focused on the areas that need it most. If we continue on this path, it's unlikely we will bridge the gap between those who live in cities and those who live in the country.

Why it Matters

As you can see, the difference in access, competition, and speed between urban and rural areas is pretty stark. But the question you might now be asking is: why does it matter? After all, those who live in rural areas should be used to reduced or limited services, and they may not even want them.

That might be the case for those who have the means and opportunity to live in a rural area purely by choice. However, the reality is that one in five Americans, which comes out to about 60 million people, live in rural areas. This is too large a group to simply overlook or ignore because they "chose it."

Additionally, it's also important to remember that we're talking about internet access, something most of us simply cannot live without. And if we're forced to live without it, then it means we're going to have fewer chances to do with our lives what we want  it's harder to find jobs, do those jobs, meet people, get educated, and more. Denying this to 60 million Americans is denying them the same chances that those who come from areas with good internet have, something that a society that claims to be free and equal simply cannot tolerate.

The COVID-19 crisis of 2020 has also helped show why everyone needs to have access to good internet. The pandemic forced businesses all over the country to close, and for many, being able to keep a job was only possible thanks to their home internet connection. Hopefully, something like this won't happen again, but if it does, everyone must have access to quality internet so that they can adapt in the same ways as others and keep their lives moving forward.

How to Fix It

Clearly, there is an issue in the U.S. with providing access to broadband internet in rural areas. And with one in five Americans living in rural areas - which equates to more than 60 million people - this problem is one we cannot ignore and must address if we are going to progress equally and have the same opportunities to live the lives we want to live.

However, as you might expect with such a significant and important issue, there are several different schools of thought regarding how we should go about solving this problem. Most of the arguments that go on during these conversations center around one of the following issues:

Wired or Wireless?

Most can agree that there is a need to better serve rural communities with broadband internet connections. However, how to do this is still a point of contention.

At the moment, to get consistent broadband service, most people need access to a wired or "terrestrial" connection, meaning one that relies on either cable, phone, or special fiber optic lines to deliver the connection.

This is because terrestrial networks are more reliable and can deliver faster speeds, but the time and capital investment needed to lay these cables down, and their supporting infrastructure is immense.

The investment is worth it in more densely-populated areas since you can connect many people to the same connection and quickly recoup your initial costs. But in rural areas, where homes are sometimes miles apart, it takes much longer to earn back what you spent to put those cables down, and connection speeds are bound to suffer.

One solution to this is to try and deliver broadband internet to these rural communities wirelessly, either through a satellite or through a mobile broadband network such as 5G.

Currently, the FCC does not recognize a mobile connection as being broadband (although they almost did to try and help them fudge the numbers about the digital divide), but this could change if wireless connections get better and can deliver faster speeds. There are also projects in motion, including one by Elon Musk, to put satellites into orbit to give broadband access to nearly everyone on the globe.

These technologies are promising, but we are still a way away from relying on them to be our primary means of connecting to the web. We must continue to focus on wired networks and how they can be expanded while also looking to new ways of reaching people. How to achieve a balance between the two approaches plays a significant role in defining the debates on where to go next on the way to closing the digital divide.

Regulation or Market Forces?

Another key component of the urban/rural digital divide is the role of the government. As we discussed earlier, for a business, it often doesn't make sense for them to invest the funds required to connect rural areas of the country to the web because the return simply isn't there.

These companies must do this if there is hope of improving access to broadband internet and competition within the market. So, it's therefore necessary for ISPs to have an incentive, one of which could be provided by the government in the form of tax breaks or other regulatory assistance that would make it more cost-effective for them to serve communities previously left out of an ISPs service area.

Those on the other side of this debate would argue that such government interference is dangerous as it makes it possible for turning the effort to bridge the gap between urban and rural areas  an issue that should be approached with the spirit of collective betterment  into something political. Adding a political aspect almost always stunts progress or creates too few winners and too many losers. The solution is to instead leave these issues up to the market; if there is a need, someone will rise up to fill it. In this case, we know there is a need, so it's only a matter of time before we innovate a response.

The answer likely lies somewhere in the middle. A situation where authorities do something to push private enterprise into serving these communities while not playing such an important role that it can get in the way of carrying out the initial objective of bringing broadband to the more remote parts of the country.

Cost

The last major concern that most people discuss is the cost. To put it simply: who is going to pay for this? Waiting for private industry to see the advantage may take ages, but it's impossible to fund such a tremendous project purely with public money. There is an argument for allowing governments to shoulder most of the burden since they are generally more able to handle long-term debt, but of course, there is only so much money.

Once again, the way forward likely lies somewhere in the middle. Private industry must be asked to contribute, but public institutions also have a responsibility to motivate this transition and help people get access to what has become an essential piece of technology for succeeding in the modern world.

Moving Forward

We must answer these critical questions, and it's important to do it soon. Our data doesn't suggest the digital divide is widening, but it certainly shows that it's not narrowing. And as the world moves more and more online, businesses will have to choose where to invest when improving their networks.

Of course, it makes sense that more resources go to urban areas where more people live and can enjoy the investment, but rural areas, representing a large chunk of the American populace, cannot be left behind. Targeted investment stimulated by smart policy and collectivist collaboration is needed to bring broadband internet to more corners of the country and make it easier for all Americans to participate in our modern world's digital aspects.