As many as one in 10 Americans can't get Internet connections that are fast enough for common online activities such as watching video or teleconferencing, and two thirds of schools have broadband connections that are too slow to meet their needs.
Those are some of the conclusions from the Commerce Department as it unveiled a detailed, interactive online map showing what types of high-speed Internet connections are available — or missing — in every last corner of the country.
The National Broadband Map, which was mandated by the 2009 economic stimulus bill, went live Thursday, with both lofty aspirations and utilitarian goals. Government officials hope the map will help guide policymakers, researchers, public interest groups and telecommunications companies as they seek to bridge the digital divide in even the most remote reaches of the U.S. They also hope the map will serve as a valuable tool for consumers who just want to find out what local broadband options are available where they live.
Consumers can type an address into the map and pull up a list of the local broadband providers, along with details about the types of high-speed connections they offer — such as cable modem service, fiber-optic links or wireless access — and just how fast those connections are. The map also includes crowd-sourcing features that ask consumers to contribute their own knowledge to the database. They can, for instance, confirm that they are getting the Internet speeds the map says they should be getting or let the map know if a local broadband provider is missing from the neighborhood list.
In addition, the map allows users to run all sorts of comparisons — ranking counties across a state by the fastest broadband speeds or allowing consumers to look up where their own county ranks nationally, for instance. And it can produce snapshots of an entire community that could be useful for local economic developers or real estate agents — showing what percent of a county has access to particular types of broadband technologies or how many schools and hospitals in a community have ultra-fast links. It also allows users to compare broadband data with local demographics such as income and poverty levels.
Among the map's key findings:
— Between 5 percent and 10 percent of Americans lack access to broadband access that is fast enough to handle downloads of some Web pages, photos and video or simple video conferencing services
— Two-thirds of schools surveyed have Internet connections that are slower than 25 megabits per second — well below the 50- to 100-megabit connections that state education technology directors say are needed to serve roughly 1,000 students
— Only 4 percent of libraries have connection speeds that are faster than 25 megabits
— Only 36 percent of Americans have access to wireless connections that are fast enough to be considered fourth generation, with download speeds of at least 6 megabits per second, although 95 percent of Americans have access to third-generation wireless service.
"There are still too many people and community institutions lacking the level of broadband service needed to fully participate in the Internet economy," said Lawrence E. Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the arm of the Commerce Department that is overseeing the mapping project.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission released a national broadband plan that set a goal of connecting 100 million U.S. households to broadband connections of 100 megabits per second — at least 20 times faster than many home connections now — by 2020.
One thing the map makes clear is that many Americans today do not have access to such cutting-edge, "future-proof" networks, said Tom Koutsky, chief policy counsel for Connected Nation, a non-profit that did the mapping work in 13 states and territories. Even among Americans who subscribe to broadband, he said, the map shows an emerging divide between those who have the ultra-high-speed connections — often delivered over fiber-optic lines — that are needed to watch video and handle other bandwidth-hungry applications, and those stuck with more basic services, such as digital subscriber line access, which may be too slow for tomorrow's Internet.
The raw data for the map comes from roughly 1,650 Internet service providers — primarily phone, cable and wireless companies — across the country. The NTIA awarded grants to government agencies or non-profits in every state to collect, confirm and package the data to go into the nationwide map, which was then compiled by the NTIA and the FCC. The total price tag of the map, which will be updated twice a year, comes out to $200 million over five years.
Federal officials say the data will shape national broadband policy and determine where best to invest government funds to ensure that all Americans have access to the high-speed connections needed in today's digital society.
The map comes too late to help guide Commerce Department and Agriculture Department officials who have awarded more than $7 billion in stimulus money to pay for high-speed Internet networks and other broadband projects across the country over the past two years. But the data will help set priorities for huge federal programs such as the Agriculture Department's Rural Utilities Service and the Universal Service Fund, which spend billions annually to subsidize telecom services. The FCC is in the process of overhauling the Universal Service Fund, which currently pays for telephone service in rural and poor communities, to subsidize broadband.
The Obama administration argues that broadband can play a critical role in bringing new businesses and new economic opportunities to depressed communities. High-speed Internet connections can also make it possible for doctors to consult with patients hundreds of miles away, for students to take online classes at universities across the country and for governments to deliver services more efficiently.
According to a survey of 54,000 households conducted by the Census Bureau in October, 68 percent of U.S. households subscribe to broadband.