This is according to FCC Chair Tom Wheeler, who will issue his latest annual Broadband Progress Report later this month.
In a fact sheet [PDF] released in advance of that report, Wheeler notes that, as of 2014, 39% of the U.S. rural population didn’t even have the option of calling up a cable or phone company to provide their homes with broadband service. While that’s an improvement over previous years — it was up at 55% in 2012 — the urban/rural gap still represents a very wide and deep digital canyon.
Only 4% of Americans in densely populated urban areas lack access to broadband (that doesn’t mean that 96% of people have it; just that they could purchase it if they chose to), while the nationwide average shows that 90% of Americans can get acceptable landline Internet service.
A big part of the problem with providing high-speed Internet to rural America is infrastructure. Many of these areas are served by old copper-line networks that telecom companies have repeatedly been accused of neglecting and allowing to fall into disrepair.
Unless these companies are willing to improve their rural networks — and not just wait until the FCC eventually relents and lets them replace copper-line service with wireless tech — there will likely still be a significant portion of the country’s rural population that lags behind in Internet connectivity.
Likewise, the telecom industry is fighting efforts by some government-owned broadband providers to expand the availability of high-speed Internet to areas in need. In 2015, the FCC voted to overturn two industry-backed state laws — one in North Carolina, another in Tennessee — that prevented municipal broadband providers from selling their service to other towns and counties, but nearly half the states have some sort of law either barring municipalities from operating broadband networks, or from making that service available directly to consumers.
In better news, earlier this year, the FCC announced deals with 10 Internet service providers, including Verizon and AT&T, to spend a total of $1.5 billion each year over the course of six years to improve rural broadband service in 45 states and one U.S. territory. The goal is to reach some 3.6 million U.S. households that are currently unserved or underserved.
Tribal lands and U.S. territories lag even farther behind in connectivity, with 68% of people in rural tribal lands lacking broadband access (41% for all tribal residents), and 66% of everyone in U.S. territories unable to get high-speed Internet in their homes.