The Internet Is on PolicyMap (and Vice Versa!)

Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you have a high-speed internet connection. I remember my family’s first DSL connection. I was in 8th grade, and the internet flowed in at a glorious 768 kilobits per second. Today, that might not be enough to watch a good cat video.

Of course, high-speed internet is important for a lot more than sharing vacation pictures and cat videos. It’s often essential for things like finding a job, managing money, doing school work, reading news, and basic communication. Without broadband internet, you wouldn’t be able to access PolicyMap!

With internet becoming almost as essential as electricity and phone service, it’s important to see where it’s in limited supply. The National Broadband Map (NBM) is a geographic database with that information. Created by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, it collects data on all broadband internet services provided throughout the country. It tells the name of the provider, the technology type (cable, fiber optic, wireless, etc.), the speed, and the area served.

The data is provided at the block level (which is even smaller than block groups). With this granular data, we can look at a lot of interesting maps:


At the most basic level, this data can tell us where broadband internet is and isn’t available. The good news is it’s available almost everywhere. When you’re zoomed out looking at the whole country, it looks like everyone has access. But zoom in, and you’ll find areas, mostly rural, where dial-up or wireless is still the only option.


In some areas, broadband internet is available, but only by one or two providers. Without competition, often you see service decline and price increase. According to the FCC, 67% of households in the US have 2 or fewer broadband options in their area.

Since speeds under 3 Mbps are sometimes too slow to be useful, we have two versions of this indicator, one showing the number of all providers, and another showing just the number of providers who offer download speeds of 3 Mbps or more.


That 768 kbps connection I had in high school wouldn’t cut it today. Videos are getting bigger, files are getting larger, and patience is getting thinner. More crucially, households now have more internet-connected devices. You might have five different people on three computers and two smartphones while watching streaming video on TV. An individual household’s internet speed requirements can vary a lot, based on how many users and devices they have, what they’re doing on the internet, and what their expectations are (some people just have more patience). An individual that just uses the internet for casual surfing and a few YouTube videos might be satisfied with a 1 Mbps connection. A family that watches high-definition movies might need something closer to 15 Mbps. Our office has a 100 Mbps connection, and sometimes that feels too slow.

So you can see how individuals and businesses might run into trouble in an area where the fastest speeds are less than 3 Mbps.

The speed data we show is the maximum advertised speed in the area. Often, users don’t actually see speeds as fast as those advertised. Also, the fastest speeds are the most expensive; users are likely to choose one that’s slower depending on price.


The most common wired broadband technology types are DSL, cable modem, and fiber optic to the end-user.

DSL is delivered over regular copper phone lines, so it has the widest availability across the country. However, since it uses regular copper phone lines, it’s often the least speedy, and insufficient for high-end users.

Cable internet is delivered through the same coaxial cables that deliver cable TV service. It has a higher capacity than DSL. The often-cited downside to cable internet is that everyone in your local area shares the same bandwidth, slowing things down during high-usage hours.

Fiber to the end-user is more familiarly known as “fiber-optic”. We have to be specific because fiber-optic technology provides the connection for almost all service providers (DSL, cable, even dial-up) — but it’s often coaxial cable or DSL that goes the last mile to your home. With fiber to the end-user, data is transmitted as light, through glass fibers, all the way to the customer. It’s hard to get faster than the speed of light. Fiber optic internet has the highest capacity of any current technology (though with great speed comes a great monthly bill). Often, what makes fiber optic valuable isn’t its speed, but its existence as a competitive alternative to the local cable monopoly.

Placement of fiber optic service can often get contentious. The New York Times recently reported that Verizon FiOS (a fiber optic service) isn’t yet available throughout New York City, as was promised when they began offering service. According to the city, people in lower-income neighborhoods aren’t getting the same access to FiOS that those in wealthier parts of the city are getting. You can see this trend in the data from NBM, but keep in mind that it’s current as of summer 2014 (and things may have improved since).


All that said, there are a few things to keep in mind when looking at this data:

  • We’ve chosen to keep wired and wireless internet data separate. Wireless internet is available in many places where wired internet is not, but it’s often more expensive, slower, and less reliable. It’s still really useful, but it’s not always a good alternative to wired.
  • The NBM collects this data from 50 different grantees in each state, who obtain data directly from the providers themselves. In other words, it’s more or less self-reported by the providers (with some checking for accuracy done by the grantees). Each grantee in each state has a different methodology for collecting the data, so be careful when comparing broadband availability across state lines.
  • This data is collected at the block level. We’re showing whether internet is available anywhere in a block. It could be just a small part of the block. Out west, where the blocks are bigger, they’re relatively more likely to catch a piece of broadband availability, just because they cover more area. This might artificially give the impression that internet is more available in rural areas.

Keeping that in mind, this is a great new addition to PolicyMap. It’s available to all users and is in the Quality of Life menu.