• United States

Population Density Dictates Broadband Service Quality

Aug 27, 20083 mins
Data Center

We have discovered a direct mathematical correlation between population density and broadband access quality. We both recently spent time in the wilds of Montana and Maine, and noticed that local broadband speeds were noticeably slower than on our home turfs in Massachusetts and Virginia. As it turns out, moving from the 3rd and 14th most densely populated states in the union to those ranked 48th and 38th explained the difference.

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) just released their second annual survey of US consumer broadband access performance. The survey is a byproduct of the Speed Matters website where you can test your Internet connection’s upload and download speeds, and CWA records test results by zip code. This is a valuable service and a welcome addition to the general knowledge base about the Internet. You can find the report here.

The news headline takeaway from the CWA and similar studies is that the US lags ominously behind the rest of the industrial nations in providing adequate Internet access to its citizens. Our takeaway is different—densely populated states stack up relatively well against the rest of the world, while sparsely populated states are like third world countries. 

Mathematical Relationship between Population Density and Broadband Quality: The CWA report provides median upload and download speeds for all 50 states and we found that state speed rankings follow population density rankings almost exactly.  In fact we were able to derive the following simple formulas to predict access speed:

Upstream Bandwidth (Kbps) = 335 + Population Density (people per square mile)

Downstream Bandwidth (Kbps) = 4.7 x Upstream Bandwidth

So you can see that bandwidth is directly related to population density.  Yes, there are some exceptions like Connecticut that should be twice as fast given its population density.  But overall the formula has an error of +/- 20%.

It doesn’t take much to figure out what is at the heart of this relationship—economics. Wiring a region for fast broadband Internet access requires a huge investment, and an enviable return on that investment is easier when buyers are packed cheek to jowl than when they are a day’s ride apart as in Montana and Maine. 

If you plug the population densities of industrial nations like South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Israel, Singapore and most of Europe into our formula, you get access speeds four to 40 times that of the US. If we are right that population density drives Internet access economics, then the US will always trail about three-quarters of the world’s countries unless we take legislative action. 

The “leading” countries are often cited as beating the US in the bandwidth race due to their “national Internet policy”. Although policies may have helped, we postulate that their population densities are a bigger factor—so we shouldn’t just copy another nation’s policy. A national US bandwidth policy must be unique because our rural characteristics are unique.

But we’ve been down this path before with rural electric and telephone service build-outs. Addressing the economic imbalance underlying Internet service quality discrepancies will require something akin to the rural electrification and universal telecommunications access programs that lit up and connected up our lightly populated regions. We know from history what works—so let’s get on with it.