The disparity in internet access between rural and urban areas in the US has been a topic of conversation for years. But this issue was exacerbated by the shift to digital work, schooling, and social interactions brought on by the pandemic at its height in 2020.
As of early 2022, the disparity still exists in internet access, speed, and affordability. According to Surfshark's Internet Value Index, two states in the eastern region of the US lie on opposite ends of the internet value spectrum.
New Jersey and Mississippi have the highest and lowest Internet Value Index scores. New Jersey sees a .99 score and Mississippi comes in with a .30, closely followed by Wyoming (.33) and Arkansas (.35). Surfshark's Internet Value Index represents the internet quality-to-affordability ratio in each state. The VPN service company explained its methodology in a November blog post.
For 45Mbps of broadband internet, someone in New Jersey needs an hour's pay to afford this speed, compared with a Mississippian's 2.9 hours of pay.
"Three out of four rural states are at a disadvantage when it comes to getting fair internet prices, further isolating them from the opportunities that wealthier and more urban states have," Agneska Sablovskaja, lead researcher at Surfshark, said in a press release.
By region, northeastern states such as New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island pay fairly, as opposed to southern states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, and West Virginia, which pay more for less value.
What creates this disparity?
According to Surfshark, four variables are responsible for a state's internet quality and how much they pay for internet services.
First, the wealthiest states pay the least for the best internet service, as 83% of these states have a high Internet Value Index. Conversely, poorer states pay more for lesser-quality internet services.
High population density also dictates the price and quality of a state's internet services. For example, New Jersey has a population density of 1,062 people per square mile compared with the US average of 87 people per square mile.
Additionally, states with population-dense urban areas have better internet quality and affordability, as the states in the northeastern region of the US have three times more urban areas than states lower on the Index in the South.
Lastly, coastal states enjoy a higher Internet Value Index score, as the average for coastal states (.65) is greater than landlocked states (.52).
But Surfshark's study says that these variables are not set in stone and can be overcome by more investment in a state's internet infrastructure. The study cites Utah, which is a landlocked state with low population density, lower state income, and only 1% of urban area, is ranked 15th on the Index.
Access to mobile and broadband internet is crucial to the US economy, as internet access is required in almost every industry. According to the USDA, 22.3% of rural households lack broadband internet access, compared with 1.5% of web surfers in urban areas.
Actions from Congress resulted in initiatives like ReConnect, which invested over $1 billion in introducing high-speed broadband connectivity in urban areas.