USA Today says the slowest rural broadband is in California. The truth is even worse

by Steve Blum • , , ,

San benito pole route 13apr2019

USA Today fell for a click bait post about rural broadband speeds, but at least it was click bait that made a useful point about the growing gap between rural and urban service levels.

The top line, of the USA Today article and the post on an Internet-oriented aggregator website, is that Newcastle, along Interstate 80 in Placer County, has the slowest rural broadband service in the U.S., with an average download speed of 3.7 Mbps. That figure comes from speed tests conducted on another aggregator site.

That’s bad, but it’s not close to being the bottom of barrel.

A quick look at the data I have handy – the provider service reports collected by California Public Utilities Commission and current as of 31 December 2017 – shows that out of the 1,513 incorporated cities and census designated places in California, 184 have zero broadband service according the telephone and, sometimes, cable companies that serve them. sixs others have reported download speeds – both maximum and average – of less than 3.7 Mbps.

Reported speeds are what AT&T and Frontier Communications sell you. Measured speeds – what you actually get – are less, and the maximum speed in a town is usually only available near the telco central office. Cable coverage, whether it’s big boys like Charter and Comcast, or smaller providers like Wave, is usually restricted to neighborhoods where customers and money are sufficiently dense.

Newcastle provides an excellent illustration of this discrepancy. Wave reports service levels of up to 1 gigabit there, and AT&T claims a maximum download speed of 25 Mbps, with a 19 Mbps average throughout the town. The graphic below shows AT&T’s broadband holes in Newcastle, at least the ones they own up to. There’s no way of assessing the validity of the 3.7 Mbps click bait figure, but it certainly reflects the subjective experience of residents, as the anecdotal evidence in the USA Today article shows.

So Newcastle’s broadband service is bad, but it isn’t the worst in California, let alone the entire U.S. Based on the CPUC’s data, out of 1,513 communities, Newcastle has the 518th fastest average download speed and the 584th fastest maximum download speed. It ranks even higher when only residential service is considered.

Two-thirds of Californian communities have slower download speeds than Newcastle, which USA Today says has the slowest broadband service in the U.S. That’s a problem that needs fixing.

Newcastle cpuc map 27nov2019

I’ll be crunching the next round of CPUC data, current as of 31 December 2018, in the next few weeks. We’ll see if anything has changed.