Millions of Americans don't have broadband access. How connected are your neighbors?
As the U.S. governement prepares to spend $65 billion to expand broadband access, about one in three Americans – more than 120 million people – do not use high speed broadband, often because it doesn't reach them or they can't afford it.
That's according to Microsoft, which in late 2020 published broadband usage rates for every ZIP code in the U.S., showing the percentage of people who use broadband. It's a stark difference from a Federal Communications Commission estimate that only 14 million Americans lack broadband access near them.
USA TODAY compared the Microsoft data to U.S. Census estimates and found that rural ZIP codes and those with the highest rates of poverty have the lowest rates of high-speed broadband usage. "High-speed" meant 25 Mb/s download speeds and 3 Mb/s upload speeds.
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The $1.2 trillion Build Back Better Act pledges $65 billion in federal money toward improving broadband access, including subsidizing fees for users and extending lines.
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Eight states have overall usage rates below 50%. The lowest usage rate is in Mississippi, where 31.9%, less than a third of residents, use high speed broadband, according to USA TODAY's analysis. The others are West Virginia (36.4%), Arkansas (39.7%), New Mexico (43.9%), Louisiana (44.5%), Kentucky (45.8%), Alabama (46.2%), and Oklahoma (49.2%).
In four states, more than 75% of the population uses high-speed broadband: Utah (80.7%); New Jersey (77.4%); Maryland (77.1%); and New Hampshire (76.3%).
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Broadband access is a rural problem. ZIP codes in counties that the U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies as rural had the lowest rates of broadband usage in the nation compared to suburban and urban counties. Overall, just 22.3% – fewer than one in four – people in those rural areas use high-speed broadband. Compare that to suburban areas at 40.8% and urban areas, where most Americans live, at 68.2%.
Broadband access is also a poverty problem. Zip codes with the lowest poverty (under 12.5%, roughly the national average) have the highest broadband usage, a combined 70.9%. Zip codes with the highest poverty rates, 50% or above, have a combined broadband usage rate of just 19.2%.
However, the ZIP codes with the highest percentages of non-white residents fared about as well as other ZIP codes, according to the Microsoft and Census data. Zip codes with 75% or more minority residents had about 62.5% broadband usage, comparable to the national usage rate of 64%. In fact, the Zip codes with the fewest minority residents – less than 25% – had lower rates of Broadband usage: 58.2%.