As federal officials debate pouring billions of dollars into broadband access, data suggests many of Alabama’s schoolchildren and adults who preferred to work from home spent the pandemic with sub-par access to high-speed internet, particularly in the state’s least-wealthy counties.
Advocates say that “digital divide” across the United States is due largely to two factors: a lack of internet infrastructure in the country’s rural reaches and the relatively high cost of broadband that has made the service unaffordable for many in urban centers.
In about half of Alabama’s counties — 34 of 66 — measured by a Federal Communications Commission study, broadband access is available to at least 76% of residents. Yet in about half of the state measured by Microsoft — 34 of 67 counties — no more than 18% of households actually have high-speed access, a USA TODAY analysis shows.
President Joe Biden and a bipartisan group of Senate moderates have reached a deal on a far-reaching infrastructure plan that would direct $65 billion to increase broadband connectivity from coast-to-coast. Despite the agreement, it’s unclear whether it would address the solutions some lawmakers want to see such as continued broadband subsidies for low-income families, greater competition among wireless providers and continued buildout of high-speed networks in poorer, rural areas.
The Biden administration estimates 30 million Americans live in areas that lack broadband infrastructure to provide minimally acceptable speeds.
In Alabama, 16.8% of residents don’t have adequate broadband infrastructure and 55.4% live in areas that have only one internet provider, according to the White House.
Locally, on the FCC and Microsoft measures: In Tuscaloosa County, 92% of households could get broadband but 32% actually had it.
The proportions of Alabama households that have high speed access varies widely: In Choctaw County, it’s just 2%; in Greene County, it’s 2%; and in Washington County, it’s 2%. Leading the state are Madison County with 63%, Tallapoosa County with 47% and Montgomery County with 47%.
A USA TODAY analysis of data nationwide found a wide gap between rich and poor counties, as measured by median household income. The chasm varies depending on state and county.
Among Alabama’s wealthiest counties: 46% of Shelby County has access, 63% of Madison County has access and 37% of Elmore County has access. Among the least-wealthiest counties, access rates are 2% in Greene County, 8% in Sumter County and 7% in Perry County.
Among the state’s most populated counties: Some 38% of Jefferson County households have broadband access, as well as 28% of Mobile County households and 63% of Madison County households, the Microsoft data shows.
The complete USA TODAY story on national broadband is available on usatoday.com.
Erin Mansfield and Matt Wynn contributed to this report. The USA TODAY Network is publishing localized versions of this story on its news sites across the country, generated with data from Microsoft, the Federal Communications Commission and the White House.