Report: Two-Thirds of Counties Average Internet Speeds Slower Than Broadband

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Connecting state and local government leaders

A new report by the National Association of Counties highlights slow internet connectivity speeds experienced acutely in small, rural counties.

Government officials have long been frustrated by inaccuracies in the broadband connectivity data collected by the Federal Communications Commission, which estimates that 21 million Americans, or 6.5% of the population, lack access to high-speed internet.

New data, crowdsourced from an app that tests internet connectivity speeds, found that 65% of counties across the United States are averaging connection speeds slower than the FCC’s definition of broadband.

The findings were released Monday in a report by the National Association of Counties, which launched the mobile app last year to help fill in the gaps in the FCC’s connectivity data.

The FCC defines broadband connectivity as internet download speeds of 25 megabits per second (mbps) and upload speeds of 3 mbps. But by analyzing speed data culled from just over 99,000 speed tests, conducted in 2,391 counties across the United States, NACO found that many counties—particularly those in rural areas—were not meeting that benchmark. According to the report, 77% of small counties, 51% of medium-sized counties and 19% of large counties were averaging connections at speeds slower than 25 mbps.

NACO’s executive director, Matthew Chase, said the organization plans to use the data to advocate for more funding for expansion of broadband and to help state, local and federal governments learn more about connectivity issues. 

As state and local governments work with the federal government to expand broadband access, the data could provide valuable insight about what locations could be targeted for investment.

“Having the facts that the coverage is not there helps us create partnerships,” said Gary Moore, county judge and executive for Boone County, Kentucky and NACO’s first vice president.

Boone County does not want to be in the business of owning or operating a high-speed internet service, Moore said. But having additional connectivity data could help the county find businesses, internet service providers (ISPs) or other organizations that want to work with local government on broadband expansion projects.  

Lack of access to high-speed internet can stifle growth and economic development in unconnected regions, the NACO report said. Underserved communities may be at a disadvantage to attract, retain and cultivate new businesses. And without reliable fast internet, residents may be unable to compete for jobs that allow remote work.

“Without access to affordable high-speed internet, workers in underserved economies are being left behind as employment opportunities are given only to those with access to information, education and training,” the report said.

The NACO report analyzed internet speed data collected through the TestIT app from March 1, 2019 to February 6, 2020. The test analyzed connection speeds from both cell phones and fixed-wireless connections. The 35,085 cellular connection tests found that 76% of counties averaged speeds below 25 mbps while the 64,144 fixed-wireless connection tests found about 59% of counties were experiencing speeds below 25 mbps.

Average download speeds ranged from a minimum of 0.24 mbps in Cumberland County, Kentucky to a maximum of 281.71 mbps in Lamar County, Mississippi.

Source: National Association of Counties

The NACO data is one of several mapping initiatives undertaken at the local government level to supplement the FCC’s broadband connectivity maps. The FCC’s maps have been criticized for their approach to determining whether or not a community is connected to broadband. The maps are based on data the FCC collects data from internet service providers (ISP) on broadband availability. If an ISP offers service to at least one household in a census block, the FCC counts that entire census block as having broadband coverage.

The app tests gave San Diego County “some verifiable information” of what leaders long suspected, said Greg Cox, a county supervisor. While high connection speeds were available in urban areas of his county, they dropped off precipitously in the rural eastern and northern regions.

The NACO report underscores the difficulties local governments face in addressing disparate broadband access across the United States, particularly in small counties. To improve connectivity, it recommends that stakeholders collect more accurate data on broadband access and states remove limitations or outright bans that prevent local governments from owning broadband networks. It also suggested reclassification of broadband as a utility to help address issues with cost.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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