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American Today



Wealthiest in Washington Get Best Broadband Value

By Mike Unger

Investigative Reporting Workshop

Those who live in low-income areas of the Washington metropolitan area, including parts of the District of Columbia and rural areas far from the city, on average get less for their broadband dollar than those who live in the wealthy suburbs.

The key finding of American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop’s examination of the issue raises a troubling question. Is the so-called digital divide widening?

“Broadband is more than just a commercial issue,” said John Dunbar, IRW project director. “It’s becoming, if you hear Obama talk, almost a civil right. It’s more than just watching TV or YouTube videos, it becomes a real societal imperative that people have this access.”

A former reporter for the Associated Press and at the Center for Public Integrity, Dunbar has been following the telecommunications industry for years.

“The real power is shifting from people who owned television stations and newspapers to the people who own the pipes that deliver Internet content,” he said. “Every statistic shows that the trend is toward getting your news online. If everybody’s going to be getting their news from that platform, there’s a public interest issue involved in making sure you have a solid broadband connection. As a watchdog the obvious move was to take a look at whether people actually have access to a broadband connection, whether they’re paying a reasonable sum to get it, and what the value of that connection is.”

To explore those questions, Dunbar and his team at IRW analyzed data from the network diagnostics firm Ookla, which is one of two providers of connection speed tests featured on the Federal Communications Commission’s Web site. For this survey, broadband was defined essentially as any kind of Internet connection that is not dial-up. Cable and DSL are by far the two most popular forms.

“The FCC collects a fair amount of information, but what is collected is secret,” Dunbar said. “This is the great outrage. We allow broadband to go pretty much without regulation. We let these companies do anything they want even though they’re using the public right-of-way. You could create a more competitive environment if you could make public how much people are paying for the service and how fast their connection speed is.”

That’s exactly what the IRW report, “Connected: The Media and Broadband Project” aims to do. Using 4,294 surveys, it broke down the cost per megabit paid by a subscriber. Connection speeds are determined by how fast a piece of data travels over the Internet in a single second. To measure value, the monthly cost of service is divided by the connection speed.

The results showed that people in the 25 richest Zip codes in the region spend about one-third less on average than those in the 25 poorest Zip codes for similar Internet access speeds.

Subscribers in suburbs including Fairfax and Arlington counties in Virginia, and Montgomery in Maryland, spend about $9.58 per megabit per second. Residents in the lowest-income neighborhoods, which include rural areas and parts of Washington, pay about $31.17 per megabit per second.

 “DSL essentially is a road to nowhere on broadband. Cable has won that war,” Dunbar said. “Cable may not compete on overall price with a DSL connection in the city. You may see a DSL connection that is much slower than cable but is priced lower. People in the city are probably going to look at the overall price.”

The survey showed that the monthly bill in wealthier areas is typically higher—$55.05 compared with $51.29 in the poorer areas—but poorer areas get much lower speeds for the money.

“I can’t say that anyone’s getting ripped off because we don’t know much about what the actual costs are for these companies,” Dunbar said. “That’s one of the things that’s frustrating about covering this industry. A lot of these companies are publicly traded and none of them are hurting.”

In June the IRW plans to release the next part of its report. That study will examine broadband penetration and adoption rates using Census data. With the government investing billions of dollars in broadband, Dunbar believes it’s important to illuminate this issue for the public.

“I hope it will be used to make more intelligent policy decisions on underserved areas,” he said. “This project I hope kicks off the blinders to some extent.”