Thursday, August 20, 2009

Rural Broadband Penetration Close to 100% of Internet Users?

Use of broadbnd in rural areas now is close to 100 percent of Internet users, new data from comScore suggests. In 2007 the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service estimated that 63 percent of all rural households had at least one member access the Internet.

If rural broadband penetration now is up to 75 percent, as comScore indicates, that would imply that Internet usage is at least that high, allowing for some households that continue to use dial-up access.

That would seem to have implications both for setting of national broadband policy and policy in rural areas. For starters, the new data suggest that rural broadband is growing robustly, without any additional government activity.

Some might argue that broadband usage remains lower in rural areas than in metro areas, and that remains true. Metro broadband penetration is at 89 percent. But virtually every study has shown that Internet usage also is lower in rural areas.

Broadband pentration in U.S. rural areas increased 16 percent from 2007 to 2009, while metro area broadband penetration grew 11 percent, according to comScore.

In part, that is because rural markets have more room to grow. The analogy is wireless voice growth, which is highest in places such as India, China and Africa, where penetration is lowest.

“With low-speed DSL priced at about the same level as dial-up in many areas, there is little incentive for households to remain on dial-up,” says Brian urutka, comScore VP.

Rural markets with a population less than 10,000 grew broadband penetration by 16 percentage points. Areas with population between 10,000-50,000 grew penetration 14 percentage points while metropolitan areas with populations of 50,000 or more grew penetration by 11 percentage points.

Critics sometimes say that even if access is not a problem, access speeds are, and that is an argument that makes more sense. The issue there, though, quite often is the "middle mile" trunking between major points of presence and the actual rural communities.

Basically, the problem is not the Internet backbones, and not even so much the local access networks, as it is the trunking network to backhaul traffic to the Internet PoPs. Many rural ISPs find, for example, that they have access to a T1 or two T1s in the middle milde. That makes it tough to deliver faster broadband access to customers on the local access networks, for obvious reasons.

The Internet backbone is a firehouse. So are the access networks, for the most part. But the middle mile is a straw.

That isn't to say there are no communities or isolated locations without broadband access availability from at least one terrestrial provider, and two satellite providers. It is to point out that the "problems" often have more to do with trunking facilities than local access, and that any gaps between urban and rural use of the Internet and broadband are rapidly closing.

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