Where we're at with broadband stimulus and rural Internet access

Samantha Bookman, FierceTelecomHow far along is the national broadband stimulus program? Since 2009, over $3,525,706,687 in stimulus grants have been disbursed to 258 applicants in two rounds of BTOP funding, according to the NTIA. More than 18,000 miles of new broadband networks have been built out as of November 2011, the Commerce Dept. reported. The money has been used for more than 229 projects so far--beyond building infrastructure, stimulus has funded the creation and improvement of public computer centers, state government development, and sustainable broadband adoption initiatives.

But a look at the NTIA's broadband availability maps show that the United States still has a way to go before every citizen has access to acceptable high-speed, scalable broadband.

Last February, Connected Nation's analysis of NTIA data found that less than 4 percent of counties across the United States--114 of 3,219 counties--met the stated national broadband goal of having speeds of 3 Mbps download and 786 Kbps upload available to residents. About 15 percent, or 474 counties, were in line to meet those speed goals.

A year later, it's not entirely clear how much those figures have changed. The NTIA's maps were last updated in December 2010. A look at those maps shows that DSL is the wireline technology of choice in most U.S. communities, with fiber availability a distant last. (The FCC has also added a broadband information page of its own, but its maps also draw from Dec. 2010 data.)

U.S. broadband availability

Click here for detailed broadband availability data.

Taking a look at other research statistics, however, shows that momentum for network buildouts has picked up: The Broadband Forum reported that Q3 2011 saw the strongest global growth in Fiber to the Home (FTTH) subscribers since 2009, with the United States adding over 978,000 lines in the quarter to reach 90.5 million lines. This is heartening news for making much higher broadband speeds available to more U.S. households. But the cost of straight-up fiber installation is still an obstacle to FTTH--Verizon's halting of its FiOS buildout being a prime example.

Consumer and business demand for better, faster broadband also appears to be picking up, as is the competition to provide it. Incumbent carriers like CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL) and AT&T (NYSE: T) are bridging speed gaps with technologies like Ethernet over Copper, while cable operators, fast moving up in the broadband pack, offer Internet technologies that utilize their existing coax lines.

Still, there are large hurdles to clear. Rural communities are still way behind the speed curve, with 17 states reporting a 15 to 25 percent difference in speed availability between their urban and rural areas. (And that's at the 3 Mbps/768 Kbps federal standard.) That is beginning to change, as stimulus awardees including Windstream (Nasdaq: WIN) in its Oklahoma region put their grants into action and break ground on projects to improve broadband access in selected rural areas.

Low income consumers are gaining more access to broadband technologies thanks to both increased public computer availability and "essentials"-type subscriber programs offered by providers like Comcast and CenturyLink.

On this detail page I've put together some of the data from the NTIA's national broadband map. It's an interesting look into where the United States stands on broadband accessibility, and how far we've got to go. --Sam