High-speed internet access spreading, though slowly

A study released earlier this month by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) suggests that more students might have high-speed internet access in their homes this year—but not many more.

Access to high-speed, or “broadband,” internet services is expanding slowly at all levels, according to the study. Analysts who study the telecommunications industry attribute this slow growth not to the availability of broadband services, but to a lack of demand.

The report said 7 percent of U.S. households had high-speed access by the end of last June, up from 4.7 percent at the beginning of 2001 and more than triple the 1.6 percent with access in August 2000.

Overall, the nation had 9.6 million subscribers to extremely fast internet services by the end of last June, up 36 percent in the first six months of 2001. But the FCC noted that broadband subscriptions had jumped 250 percent since the agency’s previous report, issued in August 2000.

FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell said the latest report shows that broadband availability and subscribership “have enjoyed strong growth even in the categories of residential and small business customers, low-income consumers, and people within sparsely populated regions.”

But Commissioner Michael J. Copps issued a separate statement that disagreed with Powell and the report. Copps said the FCC needs more information to assess internet access, and he urged a national debate about broadband services.

“On the basis of the record before us, I am unable to determine whether the deployment of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans is, or is not, reasonable and timely,” Copps said.

The report was the third in a series required by Congress to assess whether “advanced telecommunications capability” is being made available to all Americans “in a reasonable and timely fashion.”

Advanced capability, according to the agency, is high-speed, broadband service that allows transmission of “high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video using any technology platform.”

Although broadband access is increasing, critics say there is still a substantial split between rural and urban areas, and between rich and poor households.

“Urban usage is still almost double that for rural areas,” said Tony Wilhelm, a spokesman for the Benton Foundation, which runs the educational Digital Divide Network in Washington, D.C. “There are still huge disparities.”

Customers in about 96 percent of the nation’s most wealthy ZIP codes have high-speed internet access, while the study found high-speed customers in only 59 percent of the poorest ZIP codes.

The contrast between rural and urban areas was even greater. The FCC found that 98 percent of the most densely populated ZIP codes have at least one broadband customer. In contrast, less than 40 percent of rural ZIP codes have even a single high-speed subscriber.

Telecommunications industry analysts say demand is more of a problem than access, because enough lines and equipment already have been upgraded to give more than half the country broadband service, but only a fraction of households are buying it.

“Infrastructure is increasing much faster than demand,” said John Hodulik of UBS Warburg in New York.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a longtime advocate of improved internet access, said the FCC report suggests access will continue to be uneven without a broad national policy.

“The real challenge is to put in place a broadband deployment policy that doesn’t leave rural America in the ditch,” Wyden said. “I think we have a long ways to go.”

The FCC report was released just two days after the Bush administration released a report saying that internet use is growing among the poor and minorities and in rural areas.

But critics say the administration’s report, released by the Commerce Department Feb. 5, shows the gap between technology haves and have-nots is actually widening, with only about a fourth of Americans making less than $25,000 a year using the internet, compared to nearly three-fourths of those who made more than $75,000.


FCC report

Commerce Department report

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