Who Will Bring Broadband to Everyone?

No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.
-- President Barack Obama, Second Inaugural Address

Has it been just one year since President Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural Address? Last year, at this time, our ears perked up when we heard the President stress building networks after being sworn in for a second term. Here at the Benton Foundation, we believe that no one can fully participate in modern society unless they have the means to effectively use our most powerful communications tools. Broadband networks must be available, accessible, affordable, trustworthy, and relevant to new adopters. And these people must develop the skills needed to make use of these powerful tools.

In the U.S. it is not just aspiration that high-speed Internet networks reach everyone – it is the law. Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission to promote the deployment of broadband services to all Americans. The FCC must take affirmative steps to provide all Americans with an equal opportunity to access broadband. The law both compels the FCC to promote universal broadband and to avoid steps that would undermine this goal. Just after President Obama’s first inauguration, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) which reaffirmed this commitment. The FCC was asked to create a National Broadband Plan to “ensure that all people of the United States have access to broadband capability and shall establish benchmarks for meeting that goal.” In light of the ARRA, the nation’s broadband policy goals now seek to encourage increased utilization of broadband in addition to the ubiquitous deployment of broadband facilities.

So where are we? In June 2013, the White House released a report finding that 91 percent of Americans have access to wired broadband at advertised speeds of at least 10 Mbps downstream, and 81 percent of Americans have access to similarly fast mobile wireless broadband. (1) In 2011, 77 percent of American Internet users ages 25 and older reported relying on the Internet for personal communications.

Echoing the President’s message that no one can build all the needed networks alone, the June 2013 White House noted both private and public investment in broadband infrastructure. Since President Obama took office in early 2009, nearly $250 billion in private capital has been invested in U.S. wired and wireless broadband networks. In just the last two years, more high-speed fiber cables have been laid in the U.S. than in any similar period since 2000. Moreover, during President Obama’s first term, the annual investment in U.S. wireless networks alone grew more than 40 percent from $21 billion to $30 billion.

But not just private investment has gotten us where we are today. The federal government has made a number of contributions to the rapid growth of high-speed broadband.

  • Most notably, the ARRA included a $6.9 billion upgrade to the nation’s broadband infrastructure: $4.4 billion was administered by the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to deploy broadband infrastructure, support public computer centers and encourage adoption of broadband. The remaining $2.5 billion was directed to the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to expand broadband access in rural areas.
  • In addition, the President signed into law one of the largest temporary tax incentives for investment in American history, which has played a key role in accelerating and increasing investment across the economy -- and particularly in telecommunications.
  • In 2010, the President directed NTIA to work with the FCC to re-purpose 500 MHz of spectrum from existing Federal or nonfederal use to wireless broadband within 10 years, almost doubling the amount of spectrum available for that use. NTIA had identified 115 MHz of federally-assigned spectrum that could be re-purposed for broadband and described its plan and methodology for reviewing additional spectrum bands to reach the 500 MHz goal.
  • In his 2011 State of the Union address, the President announced a commitment to ensure that at least 98 percent of Americans had access to 4G wireless broadband service by 2016.
  • In 2012, Congress authorized the FCC design and conduct “incentive auctions,” in which television broadcasters can voluntarily relinquish some or all of their spectrum rights in return for some of the proceeds raised when that spectrum is auctioned for flexible use, such as wireless broadband. The FCC is developing the rules for these auctions and has tentatively scheduled them for 2015.

But even with all these private investments and government action, the FCC has found that serious, persistent gaps remain:

  • 19 million Americans -- 6 percent of the population -- still lack access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds (3 Mbps).
  • In rural areas, nearly one-fourth of the population --14.5 million people -- lack access to this service.
  • In tribal areas, nearly one-third of the population lacks access.
  • Even in areas where broadband is available, approximately 100 million Americans still do not subscribe.

Broadband adoption in the U.S. also remains uneven. Demographic factors influence broadband adoption. For example, home broadband adoption among those with at least a college degree (88%) is more than double that of those who did not complete high school (35%); 50 percentage points separate broadband use in households with annual incomes exceeding $100,000 from those with incomes below $25,000 (93% compared to 43%). A larger percentage of urban dwellers use broadband at home (72%) than rural residents (58%), while Asians (81%) and Whites (74%) have adopted broadband at home to a greater extent than Hispanics (56%) and African Americans (55%).

In total, approximately 29 percent of Americans do not use broadband at home as of 2011 – this includes 8 percent of Americans who access the Internet only away from home (for instance at the workplace or an anchor institution such as a library or community center) and the less than 3 percent of Americans who continue to use dial-up at home. Why do millions of these Americans who have access still choose not to subscribe? According to recent surveys, cost, skills and relevance remain major concerns.

In 2011, almost half of all households that did not use the Internet at home reported they had no need or interest in going online. This was especially true for older Americans; 68 percent of Americans 65 years or older were likely to express no need or interest in using the Internet at home, compared to 21 percent of people between the ages of 16 and 44.

The second most common reason cited for lack of broadband adoption is affordability. In 2011, 28 percent of non-adopting households did not have broadband service at home primarily because of the expense of Internet service, an increase of four percentage points above 2010 data. Cost represents a significantly greater obstacle for lower income Americans: compared to 18 percent of households with annual incomes above $50,000 that cited affordability as the main deterrent to going online, 32 percent of families with incomes below $25,000 responded that the high cost of Internet service prevented them from using broadband at home.

So, obviously, additional efforts are needed to close the nation’s persistent digital divide. Should we rely simply on market forces to close these gaps? Should government be solely responsible? If we are to continue the progress made in the last few years, we’ll continue to need a mix of private and public investment. Unfortunately, current plans for private investment in high-speed, landline broadband mean many Americans will not be offered service and many more will likely not have competitive choices. Late last year, for example, Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam reiterated that the company will not expand the footprint for its fiber-based, FiOS service. In 2012, AT&T announced that it would expand its U-verse hybrid fiber service to a total of just 33 customer locations by the end of 2015.

President Obama has proposed a way to drive truly high-speed broadband into every community in the U.S. On June 6, he unveiled the ConnectED initiative which would connect 99 percent of America’s students, through next-generation broadband (at speeds no less than 100Mbps and with a target of 1Gbps) to, and high-speed wireless within, their schools and libraries. The FCC has proposed to modernize the existing E-rate program to foster a robust ecosystem for digital learning, supported by robust broadband connectivity and wireless networks.

Additionally, for unserved communities, municipally owned (or partially owned) broadband networks are a viable option. “The question is not whether any or every community should build a network,” writes Christopher Mitchell in a 2012 joint report of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the Benton Foundation, “the question is who should make that decision. A decision of this import should be made locally, not by distant politicians in Washington, DC or state capitals.”

One year after President Obama’s commitment to universal broadband deployment, it remains apparent that neither the telecommunications industry nor government can do it alone. But just as apparent is the fact that the government – both federal and local – plays a crucial role in ensuring our most powerful communications tools are available and affordable so that everyone can fully participate in modern society.


  1. The government commonly defines the “basic” speed for broadband at 3 Mbps downstream and 768 kbps upstream (3Mb/768kb), with some regulatory decisions defining basic service as 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream. [E.g., the Federal Communications Commission has defined broadband for certain regulatory purposes to mean downstream speeds of at least 4 Mbps and upstream speeds of at least 1 Mbps. Sixth Broadband Report, 25 FCC Rcd 9556, 9563 ¶10 (2010).] Nonetheless, the White House acknowledges that the country is rapidly reaching the point at which baseline broadband evaluations should increase, and might instead begin at 10 Mbps downstream. Since these lower baselines were used in developing most broadband metrics to date, when determining the “cutoff” for broadband, data throughout this report reflects those earlier metrics. While the Administration believes 10 Mbps downstream is an increasingly “basic” speed, setting a 10 Mbps baseline for future evaluations does not imply that such speeds will fully meet all or even most Americans’ needs. As upward evolution in broadband speeds continues, however, reaching that figure at affordable prices should be a low-end standard. This evolving baseline reflects a growing need for increased bandwidth as more Americans use the Internet for work and to build career skills.

By Kevin Taglang.