Coverage in Rural America: Finding the Best Internet Providers by Zip Code

Posted under: AT&T, Blog, DSL, Internet, Mississippi, Montana, Satellite, South Dakota, Verizon and West Virginia

Life in rural America can be every bit as blissful as you might imagine. There's plenty of fresh air, lots of wide open spaces, friendly folks, and a slower pace of life that many people find preferable to the faster pace of urban centers. The only downside to living in the country is that when you look at internet providers by zip code, you run up against slim pickings. Staying connected when you live in the most rural parts of America has been tough in the past and can still be a challenge.

Why the State of Broadband in Rural America Matters

The internet hasn't been a part of most of our lives for that long, and yet it's a necessity for billions of people around the globe. Most Americans now rely on broadband access to make appointments, keep track of their kids' lives, stay abreast of current events, work, play, and stay connected with friends and family. Public schools are less competitive when they don't have reliable internet access in the classroom. Municipalities rely on the internet, too, because broadband access lets local businesses compete.

When the internet providers in a given zip code are providing customers with a reliable broadband connection at an affordable price, rural communities are better off for having that access. Businesses can market locally and sell remotely more cheaply. Doctors can practice telemedicine, giving people far outside of city centers access to specialty medicine. Educators can tap into virtual opportunities for students. Learners can take college courses online. And perhaps most importantly, people can find remote work, which means that in low-income communities, internet access can reduce unemployment and keep people from leaving the area during economic lows.

What Internet Providers are Offering and Where

Wiring a community for broadband can do a lot of good, and yet millions of Americans - especially those in rural areas - don't have access to wired broadband internet providers in their zip codes. There's a huge disparity. According to a 2016 report by the Federal Communications Commission, almost 40% of rural Americans can't get broadband while just 4% of city-dwellers go without internet access.

Some of those people may have options when it comes to ISPs but the service is just not worth paying for. The FCC defines broadband as a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload, which these days seems like a modest amount, but many people in rural areas can't even get that reliably.

It should come as no surprise that many of the areas that have the least access to broadband internet are also the least populated or the least densely populated. Nearly half of Alaska residents, for example, have access to only one ISP or have no wired options for getting online at all, and one in four residents has no internet access. Other states with some of the worst coverage are West Virginia, South Dakota, Montana, and Mississippi. The stats are even more distressing when it comes to the number of households with access to gigabit broadband.

Overall, America's wired broadband infrastructure is improving as states and cities recognize the benefits of having a connected citizenry and begin treating the internet more like a public utility. But that doesn't help those people in rural America who search for internet providers by zip code and come up nearly empty. City and suburban broadband services are getting better every day, but rural access is falling behind.

The best rural broadband providers

The Problem: A Lack of Infrastructure

The reason that rural communities aren't getting the same broadband service that city dwellers enjoy is relatively simple. The infrastructure for high-speed internet just isn't in place in the country. The smallest towns in the US may get no wired results when searching for internet providers by zip code because there are simply no cable or telephone wires. Or if there are cable lines and phone lines, these are part of older systems that are incapable of delivering useful broadband speeds.

Laying down the infrastructure necessary to deliver high-speed internet to rural customers is relatively expensive because of population density. In the city, a single mile of cable may be used by hundreds of customers. ISPs don't want to invest the money to lay down cable in areas where there are only a handful of households.

Inviting More Choice of Internet Providers by Zip Code

As noted above, getting connected has advantages for both individuals and communities. Politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington have expressed their support for initiatives that would expand broadband access into rural parts of the nation. Several pieces of legislation are introduced each year that are designed to remove barriers that stand in the way of people in rural areas getting wired or wireless broadband access. On the provider side, these can include issues related to permitting or the cost to expand the network. On the consumer side, the biggest barrier is usually price. Legislation at the federal, state and city level that addresses those and other factors may end up being the key to getting more rural citizens online.

Encouraging Internet Use in Rural America

According to a report from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, just 69% of Americans use the internet compared with 75% of people in the suburban and urban populations. Can you live without the internet? Obviously. But for many people, lack of reliable broadband access means forgoing the chance to participate in cultural discussions, politics, social activities, and economic opportunities.

Fixing the problem is about more than just laying down wires. People living in rural areas often find they have few or even no choices when they search for high-speed internet access by zip code. Satellite broadband may be an option, though it won't be a viable alternative for some households. The same is true for cellular broadband. Where there is wired high-speed internet, residents may find that they pay more than city-dwellers for a lower quality of service because the infrastructure is older.

Subsidies are one solution, but not particularly helpful for those people who have no wired broadband plans to choose from and can't get reliable satellite broadband. The key may lie in investing in wireless internet technologies so that wireless broadband becomes competitively reliable and more affordable.

The Best Rural Internet Options

Searching for internet providers by zip code isn't always helpful when you live in a rural area. In some cases, your zip code may not even show up in the search results! But don't give up. While you may not see the amount of marketing by ISPs that people in urban centers do, you may still be able to get DSL or cable broadband through a smaller provider. Even Loving County, TX, and Nome, AK have DSL!

The first step in your search should be to visit an unbiased site like BroadbandSearch. There, you'll see a list of the internet providers in your zip code along with information about what kinds of speeds they offer where you live. Your choices may be limited by how close you are to the nearest metro area (especially when it comes to DSL) but it's still a good idea to compare broadband providers carefully.

When Going Wireless is the Only Option

In some cases, the best rural internet option will be satellite broadband. Don't let what you've heard about latency scare you off. Today's satellite broadband speeds are often comparable to wired internet speeds, and the best internet provider will always be the one you can actually get at your address. Residents of tiny Empire, NV rely on satellite, and providers have come a long way.

Satellite broadband uses satellites orbiting the earth to beam a signal to a dish mounted on your home. When you go online, a request travels from that dish to the orbiting satellite to your ISP, which then transmits the requested data (which could be your email, a website, or a file) back to the satellite and then to your device. It sounds like all that data transmission should take a while, but it usually happens in the blink of an eye.

Don't have an unobstructed view of the southern sky? Some internet providers in your zip code (like Verizon or AT&T) may offer wireless cellular broadband services that let you access mobile hotspots via a cellular network. If that's an option where you live, you may even be able to use tethering to turn one of your devices into a hotspot. The main downside is that when several devices are connected to your hotspot at once, you may see your internet speeds go way down.

And rural citizens have one more option for getting online. If there is a wireless internet service provider operating locally, you may be able to get fixed wireless, a type of wireless broadband that uses ground stations (also called transmission towers) instead of a cellular network to deliver an internet signal. Customers have to install special transceivers to be able to communicate with the ISP's transmission towers, which are connected to existing wired infrastructure where it exists. This is a relatively new option so don't bank on there being a WISP in your area just yet, though AT&T is rolling out fixed wireless internet that lets rural customers get online without a dish.

As to what else rural communities can do to increase the number of results when they search for internet providers by zip code, the answer is organize. In some cases, rural communities have been able to pool the funds necessary to update or bring in new broadband infrastructure. Small ISPs are often very receptive to customers who are willing to help wire up a community through fundraising or lobbying!

At the end of the day, every request helps. Getting rural communities access to broadband is important, not just for the people in those communities but also for the country as a whole. To stay competitive we need to build a nation where people have lots of choices when they search for internet providers by zip code.

Ready to get connected? Start comparing the ISPs in your area.


What does the phrase “Digital Divide” mean?

Digital Divide has become a catchphrase to describe the difference in the speed and reliability of internet options in urban areas vs those in rural areas. As you might suspect after reading this article, rural choices are fewer in number and lower in quality.

Is Starlink available to the public yet?

Starlink is a new version of satellite internet that is being brought to market by Elon Musk. It is still in beta, though word is trickling in from early users that download speeds are hitting 100-200 Mbps with very low latency. If these numbers hold, Starlink will become very big very quickly as a legitimate internet solution for rural areas.

Why don’t internet service providers install more fiber optic in rural areas?

It’s a matter of economics. Fiber requires the installation of an entirely new infrastructure. In an urban area, laying a mile of new cable might result in hundreds of new customers. Laying a mile of cable in the country might only bring in a handful (or less) of additional customers. Until building fiber infrastructure in rural areas makes economic sense, they probably won’t do it.

Will internet service in rural areas get any better?

Chances are that it will, though we might be talking a matter of years. The first step has come in the form of public awareness that a Digital Divide exists. Local, state, and federal governments, as well as private companies like Amazon and Microsoft are providing funds for broadband development specifically in rural areas.

Why do satellite internet providers use data caps?

The truth is that satellite internet is not a competitive market that is forced to comply with the laws of supply and demand. This lack of competition means that the few industry providers can essentially come up with any charges or fees that like and the customer has little leverage to complain. This is why Starlink is such an important project since it might inject a little competition into the satellite internet game.