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USDA Broadband Report Shows Urban/Rural Digital Divide Remains Wide

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a broadband study Wednesday concluding that there continues to be a digital divide between urban, rural and metro areas and suggests broadband speed is integral to bridging that divide.

"Broadband access is viewed as necessary to fully utilize the Internet's potential," the report concludes. "As the Internet economy has matured, more applications now require higher data transmission rates, even in the case of simple shopping websites."

The study found that, in 2007, while 55% of U.S. adults had broadband access, only 4% of adults in rural households could make the same claim. The study said that the shortfall may be due to the cost of service or lack of service due to lower returns on sparsely populated areas. Some of the lower-service areas attributed to small populations and ageing populations, the study found, are clustered in North and South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota and Oregon. But other areas in Nebraska, Kansas and Vermont with similar population characteristics had higher than expected broadband penetration, "suggesting that policy, economic, and social factors can overcome common barriers," the study said.

The study also found that of those rural households with Internet connections, 70% had a broadband connection vs. 84% for urban households.

The report was released the same day that co-author Peter Stenberg was a panelist at an FCC workshop on broadband adoption, where he drew on the study to advocate for closing that divide.

USDA has $2.5 million in economic stimulus grant and loan money to help do just that, along with existing programs under the 2008 Farm Act.

"The USDA study adds more weight to the overwhelming evidence that broadband is becoming critical infrastructure and driving the economy throughout America," said Free Press research director Derek Turner in response to the study. "Closing the rural digital divide should be a top priority for policymakers, who must ensure that economic stimulus funds reach the rural areas that need them the most. We must also finally tackle the long-needed reform of the Universal Service Fund. Policies that will foster a world-class broadband infrastructure for all Americans are essential to the future of rural America."

The fund, paid into by commercial providers, underwrites phone service in hard or uneconomical-to-reach places, but does not provide a similar subsidy for broadband deployment.