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Not fast enough, not broad enough: The US Internet in 2013

The good news is that more Americans than ever have broadband. The bad news is that it's still not that fast and, according to Pew, 30 percent don't have any landline broadband access.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Say good-bye to Internet's narrowband yesterday of modems when a great connection could bring you the Internet at up to a breath-taking 53.6Kbps (Kilobits per second). Today, only 3 percent of U.S. Internet users are stuck at dial-up speeds. Better still, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reports that "As of May 2013, 70 percent of American adults ages 18 and older have a high-speed broadband connection at home."

That's 4 percent better than April 2012, but don't get ready to throw a party quite yet. Both Pew and the FCC define broadband as being 4Mbps (Megabits per second) down and 1Mbps up. According to the Akamai State of the Internet report for the first quarter of 2013, the United States' average broadband speed is only 8.6Mbps (PDF Link).

Pew Internet 2013

8.6Mbps is fast, but it's not top ten in the world fast. Plus, a closer look at the numbers reveals a disturbing trend that's been with us for years: the digital divide. More and more of our books, publications, television, work, you name it, happens online and if you're poor you have as little access as ever to the intellectual riches of the Internet.

By Pew's numbers, "Almost nine in 10 college graduates have high-speed internet at home, compared with just 37 percent of adults who have not completed high school. … and those living in households earning at least $50,000 per year are more likely to have home broadband than those at lower income levels."

If you're black or Hispanic, you're much less likely to have broadband. 74 percent of whites have broadband while only 64 percent of blacks do and 53 percent of Spanish-speaking Americans do.

How to check on your Internet connection

Would it surprise you to know that the higher your income the higher your chances are of having broadband? Of course not. If you make less than $30 thousand a year, you have only a 54-percent chance of having broadband; $30-49 thousand, 70 percent; $50-74 thousand, 84 percent; and if you make more than $75 thousand annually, the numbers crest to 88 percent.

Pew also found that smartphones, with 3G and 4G, give many Americans an alternative path to broadband. In 2013, a majority of Americans own smartphones. If you add the 10 percent of smartphone users who don't have home broadband, traditional broadband, 80 percent of Americans have some kind of broadband connection.

 Further, by including smartphones in the definition of home broadband access differences between racial and ethnic groups narrow the “broadband gap.” According to Pew, "While blacks and Latinos are less likely to have access to home broadband than whites, their use of smartphones nearly eliminates that difference." (PDF Link) This still leaves 20-percent of all U.S. citizens without any kind of broadband connection.

I also wonder about what the smartphone numbers really tell us for other reasons. 4G prices tend to be higher than DSL or cable broadband. In addition, unlike landline Internet, 4G plans almost universally come with data caps. Thus, I strongly suspect that if you were to look at the Internet have-nots you'd see the vast majority are the poor--the ones most in need of Internet access.

There have been many attempts to make broadband Internet access more easily available to more people. Most recently Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, along with others, proposed making Internet access available to "the two thirds of the world who are not yet connected." He could do worse than starting at home.

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