U.S. broadband infrastructure is improving fast, according to new figures from the Federal Communications Commission. But the gains are uneven, with people that live in rural areas left behind.
Some 21 million Americans—7 percent of the population—gained access to what the FCC defines as broadband in the year since its last report on the subject. That’s a connection capable of downloading data at speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, and uploading it at three megabits per second.
However, progress on fixing the disparity between urban and rural areas was less impressive. The number of people in rural areas without access to broadband was 23 million in 2015 and dropped only to 22 million. That’s 39 percent of the rural population.
The FCC says its figures show that the nation is afflicted by a “persistent digital divide” and that “broadband is not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”
The lack of strong competition—or in some places any competition—in the U.S. broadband market is one reason for the slow progress. But there are also technical challenges with getting high-speed connections to people who live in low-density, low-infrastructure areas.
Those technical problems are why Alphabet is testing the idea of using stratospheric drones and balloons to provide Internet service in rural areas. Demonstrations of that approach have so far taken place outside the U.S.
But Google cofounder Sergey Brin said last year that he thought it could be applicable in America, too, and the company appears to have laid the groundwork to do tests in the U.S. Yesterday we learned that the company had written to the FCC to assure it of the safety of operating Loon balloons and their radio equipment in U.S. airspace.