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Breaking Down the Urban-Rural Broadband Divide

While broadband availability has expanded for all parts of the United States, NTIA data has consistently shown that urban areas have greater access to broadband at faster speeds than rural areas. In a new report released today, NTIA and the Commerce Department’s Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA) delve deeper into the differences between broadband availability in rural and urban areas.

This latest report is part of a series from NTIA that examines broadband availability data in greater detail. One key finding of the new report suggests that, in many cases, the closer a community lies to a central city, the more likely it is to have access to broadband at higher speeds. This is significant because some lower-density communities are located closer to the central city of a metropolitan area and have more access to faster broadband speeds than higher- density communities that are more distant from a central city.

Rural areas can be either within metropolitan areas (exurbs) or outside of metro areas (very rural areas), and while they each have approximately the same share of the total population (more than 9 percent) there is a wide gap in broadband availability between these two types of communities. The report shows that in 2011, 76 percent of residents in exurbs, which generally ring suburbs, had access to basic wireline broadband, defined as advertised speeds of 3 Mbps download and 768 kbps upload. In contrast, 65 percent of very rural residents, who live outside of metropolitan areas, had basic wired service. This disparity between exurban and very rural areas is even greater when it comes to access to much faster broadband service of at least 25 Mpbs. Only 18 percent of very rural residents had access to broadband at this speed compared to nearly 38 percent of exurban residents.  There are also significant gaps between exurbs and very rural areas when it comes to access to wireless broadband.  

The report also found even among urban areas – central cities, suburbs and small towns - the closer communities were closer to central cities, the more likely they were to have access to faster broadband. For example, while exurbs have fewer people per square mile than small towns, exurban communities are more likely to have access to higher-speed wireless broadband than small towns.  And small towns have much lower access to higher-speed broadband than central cities and suburbs. Interestingly, in a number of cases, suburban residents actually have somewhat faster broadband than central cities.

Overall, the country is making progress in expanding access to broadband. But this report’s more granular examination of the differences in availability between and within urban and rural areas may help policy makers, community leaders and industry officials to better understand future broadband infrastructure investments.

The report is available at:

About the Data: This report uses data from the June 30, 2011 State Broadband Initiative (SBI) dataset and the 2010 Decennial Census, to compare broadband availability across rural and urban communities. NTIA, in collaboration with the FCC, and in partnership with the 50 states, five territories and the District of Columbia, updates the SBI data and publishes the National Broadband Map (NBM) twice a year. Each state, or its designee, collects broadband data by census block or road segment. More information about data collection, verification, and publication is available in the About section of the NBM.