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Expanding Broadband Means More Than Running New Wires: State And Federal Planners Must Address What Service Costs

a broadband router
DeclanTM / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

From Texas Standard:

When thinking about expanding access to high-speed internet, known as broadband, we tend to focus on rural places where wires often haven't even been run. But the cost of connecting to broadband can also be a barrier in rural and urban areas. As federal and state initiatives to expand broadband move ahead, including here in Texas, what should policymakers do to encourage broadband expansion everywhere?

Anna Read is senior research officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts' Broadband Access Initiative. She told Texas Standard that the Federal Communications Commission estimates 14.5 million Americans don't have access to broadband. Other estimates say up to 42 million people could be without high-speed internet access. In Texas, 4% of residents lack broadband, and the rate is highest is in rural areas.

But when it comes to actually getting connected, it's not just the infrastructure that's lacking.

"About 77% of American adults have home broadband subscriptions," Read said. "And this challenge is largely driven by cost – both of the connection and of the device."

Broadband is also more widely used by members of younger, better-educated and higher-income households.

"Our colleagues at the Pew Research Center have found that 92% of adults in households earning $75,000 or more per year have a home broadband subscription," Read said. "In households with an annual income below $30,000 a year, that percentage falls to less than 60%."

Research has found that Americans pay some of the highest rates for broadband in the world. Some efforts to increase connectivity have involved letting people know about discount offers from broadband providers, as well as short-term subsidy programs like the federal Emergency Broadband Benefit that was created to assist households impacted by the pandemic.

Read says the pandemic highlighted not only the need for better broadband access, but the need to find ways to fund it. Most states, she says, have some sort of initiative aimed at expanding broadband or making it more affordable. Through its pandemic relief programs, and proposals from the Biden administration, the federal government has also stepped up its response.

"Over the last year or so, we've seen a significant uptick in activity at the state level, and the amount of funding states are putting toward their state grant programs," she said.