This post is the first in a series of blog posts which will attempt to identify barriers to access to broadband Internet and other technologies vital in today’s economy.
In 2011, my soon to be wife and I decided to move back to her home town here in Pulaski. I had a good job with a government contractor in the DC Suburbs and had no desire to look for a new one in a new area. I am fortunate however, to work in one of a growing number of fields which are conducive to telework from wherever employees live, rather than a single office. Even before I made the move, I had co-workers telecommuting from New York, Scotland, and even Guam, so Southwest Virginia seemed pretty doable.
My wife and I initially looked at homes in the quiet countryside of Pulaski County, rather than in town. There were a number of factors which ultimately convinced us otherwise, but one of the big ones was reliable access to broadband Internet which was a necessity for my job. Many homes we looked at did not have wired broadband connections, and wireless simply was not reliable or fast enough.
While this may seem like a ‘first world problem’ story, it points to a much larger issue. In so many ways, access to reliable, fast, and affordable Internet service is invaluable to quality of life, education, and economic vitality in our modern economy. Internet access opens up a global marketplace to entrepreneurs and allows companies to locate where the cost of business is low and the labor force untapped rather than in saturated markets. It allows students to access the resources they need to compete in the global economy whether they live in a big city or a remote coal town, and allows busy adults to continue their education on their own time frame.
But just as with previous technological advancements – from the electrical grid to telephone service – broadband internet has been slow to reach all Americans. In our case, the main factor was geography – finding the right location allowed us the Internet access we needed. But for many households, Internet service is effectively unavailable to them due to high cost and lack of competition, even if their home is physically wired in to a service provider.
In 1934, the FCC was tasked with providing adequate telephone service to all Americans at a reasonable price3. A similar approach is needed today for broadband Internet. Congress has recognized this fact in passing the Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2008 and establishing a National Broadband Map (https://www.broadbandmap.gov/) using government and crowd-sourced data to foster a better understanding of the distribution of broadband availability.
Part I: The Big Picture
When we moved to Pulaski, I was also part way through a graduate program at the University of Maryland in Geographic Information Systems(GIS). Since this was an online degree, I could easily complete the program from my new Pulaski home. For one of my class projects, I analyzed National Broadband Map data for the entire state of Virginia, producing maps of broadband availability by state legislative district. Note that ‘availability’ only means that a household has the ability to connect to a wireless or wired network, not whether they subscribe to a service or make use of it. The map below indicates that the availability of broadband internet is clustered fairly expectedly around the state’s population centers, interstates and academic institutions.
For a much more detailed local view, here is a zoomable map showing all areas with reported speeds over 3MBPS in our area(as of 2014). Note that you can change what speeds are displayed by clicking the icon at the top right.
In upcoming posts, I hope to dig deeper into the data and policy to identify factors other than geography which restrict access to Broadband. I also hope to look more closely at programs such as the FCC’s Lifeline and the Appalachian Regional Commission’s Broadband initiatives which help bring broadband access to those who might otherwise be left out, and which have already come under fire under the new administration. Finally, I would like to investigate the factors which lead to areas like ours being ignored by telecom providers even when the infrastructure exists and what policies can be pursued to spur investment and development in our area.