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In the first article in this series, "Part 1: Today, the Equation is Simple - Faster Internet Access Equals Greater Economic Opportunity," we looked at just how much the world or work—and our lives—has changed over the past decade or so. We saw how that "third place" that Howard Schultz envisioned has become oh so necessary in the way we get things done in the modern world. This is as people—following the classical "invisible hand" of economics have come to frequent—and in many, many cases to rely upon public spaces for their ability to consistently be able to access the internet at reasonably high speeds. The way we live, the way we communicate, and yes, the way we "work"—by whatever definition you choose to apply to that term—has become dependent on good and stable wifi! And so that is why we see so many folks huddled over a laptop and some papers at your local Starbucks, your local coffee house, or the McDonald's on the corner.
There have been numerous white papers, governmental agency reports, thoughtful articles and academic studies published on the state of internet access in the United States. By and large, you won't find much good news in these sources, no matter how far toward the proverbial "end of the internet" your search may take you!
No matter the source, there is general agreement among all of this research from experts from all around the world. This is the fact that while the Internet is no doubt the overarching driving force behind the American economy, U.S. citizens have slower connections and less access to the newest generation of connectivity than many other countries in the world. Even worse, we pay more for the access we do have. And perhaps most importantly, where you live across the vast expanse of the United States may be the greatest determinant of your capability to not only have fast Internet connectivity, but to be able to access the Web—and all of the opportunity that flows from it—in any meaningful way at all.
All of this taken together makes for a true "digital divide" in our country, in terms of who—and where—Americans can access the internet, and in 2019, that means basically how we work—and live—today!
A recent, comprehensive analysis on the differences to be found across the United States in internet access—and specifically, on access speeds—was compiled by Speed Test. Now, if you have ever been on the phone trying to get help from your cable and/or internet provider's tech support, you are likely very familiar with their website. When one has a problem with their home or office internet connection and calls for customer service, after their representative/technician has you reboot your modem as "step one" of their playbook, normally "step two" in the diagnosis/"fixing it" process is to have you test the speed of your current connectivity through Speed Test's website. Now, what is interesting is that as happens in our modern tech age, all of these individual speed tests conducted to try and diagnose your particular problem—or just to see if you are getting the proper "value" from your provider—are then aggregated to form a very interesting—and very robust—data set.
All of this data formed the basis for the 2018 Speedtest U.S. Fixed Broadband Performance Report by Ookla® (Oookla is the company behind the Speed Test site, and if you want to go into a trance, you can view the real-time count of the number of tests performed on their platform, which as of this writing totals some 22.5 billion tests!
Now, for the current report on 2018 Internet speeds, Ookla used six months of data (from calendar quarters two and three of 2018) from their speed test site. All told, as the chart below shows, this means that the firm conducted over 115 million consumer-initiated tests of their fixed broadband connectivity, run on over 24 million unique devices!
So first, let's do start with the good news from Ookla's analysis. Overall, the connectivity that Americans have is getting faster—if not cheaper and better! In the U.S. as a whole, mean download speeds rose by approximately 36 percent in 2018, while upload speeds increased by 22 percent. And in the Ookla report, you can drill down to see how individual providers fared in their overall ability to deliver connectivity to their customers (Xfinity and Verizon customers should be relatively happy, while CenturyLink's network capabilities lagged far behind the field).
But now comes the bad news! One of the primary areas of analysis carried out by Ookla was to look at the differences between internet connectivity speeds based on location. And since their data set was so large and contained samplings from all small corners of the 50 states, the Speed Test data provides perhaps the best snapshot as to how Americans access the internet—at far different speeds—across the country.
So, let's start with the numbers. The average internet download speed across the U.S. stood at just over 96 Mbps (Megabits per second), while the overall upload speed (always a lower number) rated at just under 33 Mbps. Again, this finding represented a significant jump year-over-year in connectivity speeds overall nationally, a fact Ookla attributed to the growth of cable/internet providers offering gigabit connections to their customers (with a gigabit being one billion bits, or 1,000,000,000—that is, 10 to the ninth power!).
The real story though to be told from the analysis of all of these millions and millions of individual connectivity tests on the Speed Test website was in looking at the numbers on a more localized basis. As the figure below crafted by Ookla from its findings shows, there were vast differences to be found when it comes to internet connectivity speeds based on in which state you happen to live. In fact, residents of New Jersey, the state with the highest connectivity speeds (121.45 Mbps average download speed), had download speeds approximately 140 percent faster than those living in Maine, the state with the lowest internet speeds (50.64 Mbps average download speed). If you live on the East Coast, you likely have better internet connectivity than those living in the rest of the country, as the Speed Test data ranked a total of five states (New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, Delaware and Rhode Island), plus the District of Columbia in it's top 10 based on download speeds.
And when you drill down even further to look at the data on the city level, you can see a very real digital divide based on exactly where people find themselves residing. On one side of the equation are the "best of" municipalities, which Ookla ranked overall as having the 10 fastest levels of internet connectivity (based on average download speeds):
Top 10 Municipalities Ranked by Internet Connectivity Speeds
- Kansas City, Missouri (159.19 Mbps average download speed)
- Austin, Texas (143.66 Mbps average download speed)
- Lubbock, Texas (141.48 Mbps average download speed)
- Raleigh, North Carolina (137.70 Mbps average download speed)
- San Antonio, Texas (133.86 Mbps average download speed)
- Lincoln, Nebraska (132.89 Mbps average download speed)
- Henderson, Nevada (131.63 Mbps average download speed)
- San Francisco, California (131.56 Mbps average
- Boston, Massachusetts (131.05 Mbps average download speed)
- Durham, North Carolina (129.65 Mbps average download speed).
And of course, if we have the 10 best list, then of course, there are the 10 worst cities to live in when it comes to the speed of your Internet connection):
Bottom 10 Municipalities Ranked by Internet Connectivity Speeds
- Long Beach, California (78.59 Mbps average download speed)
- Columbus, Ohio (74.02 Mbps average download speed)
- Detroit, Michigan (72.15 Mbps average download speed)
- Fort Wayne, Indiana (71.49 Mbps average download speed)
- Boise, Idaho (69.23 Mbps average download speed)
- Buffalo, New York (65.58 Mbps average download speed)
- Cleveland, Ohio (61.34 Mbps average download speed)
- Toledo, Ohio (59.56 Mbps average download speed)
- Laredo, Texas (55.37 Mbps average download speed)
- Memphis, Tennessee (44.86 Mbps average download speed).
Those are some very real—and very stark differences—between metro areas across the country! In fact, those living in Kansas City has an average internet connectivity speed fully 355 percent faster than those residing in Memphis! Now, what factors might determine these speed differences? It's not like there is a whole lot of apparent rhyme or reason when it comes to the top ranked cities. Silicon Valley (highlighted by San Jose, California) does not make the top 10 fastest communities (in fact, the city comes in ranked number 25 by Ookla's analysis with a 116.56 Mbps average download speed). On the other hand, other "tech hot spots," like Austin (number two) and to a somewhat lesser degree Raleigh (number four) both placed in the top five cities in terms of their overall Internet connectivity rates.
Economists and public policy analysts however might take a different message out of the bottom ten list. What is the common thread between the cities on this list? One could point to the economic challenges each of these towns faces, contributing to the overall poverty levels in those communities. From Detroit to Memphis and from Long Beach to Laredo, one can see a correlation between economic problems and this technological issue. Now, the famous statistical saying from Data Research 101 is that "correlation is not the same as causation." However, for metro areas fighting an uphill battle economically, one has to wonder just how big a role that this digital divide plays in their overall economic development and the vibrancy of their local economy.
The only "obvious" outlier to this argument would be Boise, Idaho, where there is presently a great deal of tech investment and activity going on. However, Boise highlights another issue, that of the rural versus urban divide. Recall that Idaho was one of the worst states overall in terms of Internet connectivity speeds. And so yes, networks do network, and that matters. So residents of Boise—which is no doubt one of the "it" communities when it comes to economic development and people looking to relocate from other areas of the country, particularly from areas of the West Coast—has the sixth worst internet connectivity speeds!
And yet, the "Boise exception" does shine a spotlight on the difficulties—rom not just a technological perspective, but from an economic one as well—that those who happen to live in rural areas needing faster web access face—as well as yes, those challenges encountered by rural cable and internet service providers seeking to serve their customers' ever-increasing connectivity needs. In the communications and telecom world, much is made of the so-called "last mile problem," meaning the challenges facing telecom companies as they seek to manage that final leg of their telecommunications network to actually deliver the necessary services to retail end-users (i.e., their customers). Certainly however, one doesn't have to be an engineer to recognize that the issues involved in serving the last mile—often last miles—to a customer in a rural area are far more complex and costly than what telecom firms encounter in serving more dense populations in urban, suburban, and even exurban areas. These rural difficulties are just a fact, and unless we get away from internet technology for homes, businesses, and other fixed "places" of access that relies on some form of a "wire" to deliver that last mile to the customer, last mile issues will continue to hamper rural development. This, of course, is a larger issue than can be addressed in this context, but it is one that certainly deserves the attention of policymakers.
So, what does all of this mean—and more importantly—what do we do about it? I began this two-part series of articles talking about the symptoms of our internet connectivity problems in the United States. We see the signs everywhere, the folks gathering at their local coffee shops, the people finding quiet spots at fast food restaurants, workers buying time at co-working spaces, and yes, the individuals spending a whole lot of time at public libraries, working either on their own devices or on public computers. Today, it really is this simple: Faster Internet access does—unquestionably, undoubtedly—equal greater economic opportunity!
As a strategic management consultant and professor, what I would like to lend to the conversation is that we need to have much more of a focus on a simple notion. When we talk about infrastructure today, too often we think about physical infrastructure. Yes, America does need to do some serious construction—and reconstruction —in the infrastructure area. We need to have world-class highways. We need to have world-class airports. We need to have world-class public transport. We need to have world-class port facilities. The list goes on and on and on. However, perhaps the key infrastructure issue of our time is not in the physical realm at all. Instead, it is digital.
In a world where competition is global and information can travel worldwide in an instant, the key to unlocking opportunity—for all of us—is the ability to effectively and efficiently function on the web. And so access to fast, reliable internet connectivity is the key enabler today—of nations, of regions, of cities, of companies, and yes, of individuals. And so when there are vast discrepancies to be found in just how fast we can access the "information superhighway" based simply on where we are in the country physically, this is a roadblock—a drag—on our collective and individual competitiveness in an increasingly competitive world.
Why should someone looking to create their space and find their opportunity doing—whatever that something might happen to be—be hampered by internet connectivity that hinders their ability to do that thing? Why should someone in high-speed Henderson, Nevada have a competitive advantage in the wired world over someone living in Buffalo, New York? And why should any American living anywhere in this great country compete at a disadvantage on the internet to millions of people living across the globe in countries with "faster, better, cheaper" web connectivity? After all, the network of networks that was originally created by Americans—no, not Al Gore, but our collective DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—within the United States Department of Defense!
And so in the end, we all have an interest in promoting better internet connectivity across the country! It is not just a competitive issue any more between rival giant telecom companies as they seek market dominance. No, today it is much more than that. Internet connectivity is the lifeblood of the new, new economy. And thus, to be an entrepreneur, a creator, a proprietor, or simply a job applicant today, you need to have that connection—the faster, the better. So, we need to promote—on the local, state, and even on the national level—public policies and yes, competition, that will accelerate the private sector to make the investments necessary to make the U.S. preeminent in the speed game. To compete today, it is indeed all about the web, and without fast, reliable internet access being available across the country, many, many Americans will fall behind their competition, both foreign and domestic. It is just that important!