Data shows bad economy couldn't stop broadband growth

The Federal Communications Commission's new status report for high-speed Internet services indicates that broadband adoption in the United States grew in 2008 by ten percent, to a total of 77 million fixed-location broadband connections. That's in contrast to 2007, when fixed broadband subscribership rose by 17 percent.

You can read 2008's slower pace as a sad commentary on the nation's oft-lamented rate of broadband penetration. Or you can interpret it as good news, considering that consumers kept buying relatively fast Internet connections through a year when the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate, well, didn't grow, to put it politely. GDP began at a tepid 2.1 percent in January of '08 and dropped to 5.4 degrees below zero by January '09, then got even worse in the next fiscal quarter.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate began its unpleasant march from 4.8 percent in March to 7.4 percent in December of that year, then got even worse (as you doubtless noticed).

So it's a testimony to how much people want broadband that they kept their subscriptions or bought a new one through those scary months. Plus at the year end of 2008, 25 million mobile device owners had a high-speed data plan for their laptop or smartphone, the FCC reports. That's out of 86 million people who bought some kind of mobile gadget that could send and receive broadband data. We don't know whether that figure represents net growth, because 2008 is the first year that the Commission has set up a coordinated count for the mobile cohort.

Granular data

These numbers need to be taken with a grapefruit sized grain of salt. Keep in mind that the FCC continues to define an advertised connection of over 200Kbps in at least one direction as "high speed Internet." If you can get decent IP video play on that rate, more power to you. Plus, while mobile data plans offer mobility, they're usually not as fast as landline subscriptions.

Still, the FCC's new numbers come via an improved data collection methodology. Under the old system, ISPs could report all five digit zip codes in which they had at least one customer. This distorted method created the broadband equivalent of "rotten boroughs" in pre-Victorian England—rural districts that were home to only a handful of farmers but still enjoyed full representation in Parliament. Starting in 2008, the agency began requiring actual subscribership numbers in 66,287 census tract areas and 3,233 counties—a much more granular approach to the task.

In addition, the agency set up a new set of classification tiers for Internet subscribers that allow for a much more nuanced picture of adoption:

  • "First Generation data": 200 Kbps up to 768 Kbps
  • "Basic Broadband": 768 Kbps to 1.5 Mbps
  • 1.5 Mbps to < 3.0 Mbps
  • 3.0 Mbps to < 6.0 Mbps
  • 6.0 Mbps to < 10.0 Mbps
  • 10.0 Mbps to < 25.0 Mbps
  • 25.0 Mbps but < 100.0 Mbps
  • 100.0 Mbps and beyond

By these classifications, 77% of those fixed and mobile high-speed Internet subscribers circa 2008 met the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's minimum definition of broadband: 768 kbps or higher advertised downstream speeds and upstream speeds above 200 kbps. Almost half enjoyed download speeds of 3 Mbps. A third could downstream at 6 Mbps and over ten percent could do so at 10 mbps or more.

And the agency's more granular system spotlights the digital divide. In six percent of US counties encompassing one percent of the total household population, only a fifth of households had high speed connections. Meanwhile, in 104 other counties covering eight percent of households, 80% enjoyed high speed connectivity.

DSL and cable still rule

What kind of fixed connections are folks buying? In 2008, 30 million subscribed to asynchronous DSL (the most common DSL flavor featuring variant upload and download speeds) and over 41 million bought Internet from their local cable company. Almost three million have optical fiber. 938,000 connect via a satellite service.

All-in-all, the number of high speed connections in the US has more than doubled since 2005. It would be nice to get the FCC's 2009 numbers sooner rather than later, but the chances are that they'll confirm the Pew Internet & American Life Project's recent figures. Broadband adoption is still growing, Pew reported, even though customers are paying more now than they were in 2008—and the economy stinks. In fact, while some consumers are cutting back on cable, many told Pew that they've upgraded their broadband accounts to get faster speeds.

Source: ars technica

Tags: Internet, USA

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