The rise of USA broadband Internet access

including Haralson County and Georgia data

An essay by Dr. Ron Feigenblatt
October 2009
minor subsequent revision

Advocacy of broadband Internet use
by government leaders

This was a VERY SERIOUS April Fool's Day 2006 statement by US Congressional Representative Fred Upton (R-MI), Chairman, Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, on the importance of broadband Internet access to community viability.
Similar words came from Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue

...on May 19, 2006: Broadband is the new dial tone for the 21st century... We cannot imagine any business, much less an entire community, operating without access to reliable telephone service. Today, broadband Internet access is just as important to our communications infrastructure.

...and on October 4, 2006: Broadband is the new dial tone for the 21st century. Connectivity will help... communities expand educational opportunities, promote economic development and increase access to government services.
Finally, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski added on August 6, 2009 that:

Broadband is the great infrastructure challenge of our generation... It is to us what railroads, electricity, highways and telephones were to previous generations -- a platform for commerce, for democratic engagement and for helping address major national challenges.

Emergence of broadband Internet access
in a majority of US homes

As we see in the chart below, broadband Internet access from US homes, which began circa 2000, became the majority rule by 2007.

How different are Haralson County
and Georgia from the USA?

Internet use varies somewhat between various states in the US federal union. But Georgia adoption rates remain very close to the national average. That is not to say there isn't also variation within Georgia. The US is now (2009) moving to create a very comprehensive census of broadband Internet availability. [Note added 2014.01: Find the entry for Haralson County in the National Broadband Map here.] But to date, use studies have relied on (statistically careful) samplings of only a tiny minority of the US population. This means that there are few reliable facts below the federal state level, on account of "shot noise" - even if not because of a total lack of data. That said, we present what little data we have for our area.


home Internet spring

USA Bureau of the Census CPS data from October 1997 provides detailed numbers for Georgia, broken down by county. Over 2,000 homes in the state were surveyed. Not every Georgia county was surveyed, but all five affluent central "Atlanta" counties (Cobb, Fulton, Clayton, DeKalb and Gwinette) were, as well as multiple other counties. Here are the results I totaled up:

Use of PCs and Internet in Georgia homes in October 1997

                         5 Atlanta    other      all of
                         counties    counties    Georgia
No PC at home              54.7%      63.0%       60.0%
PC but not Internet        13.2%      17.6%       16.0%
PC with Internet access    32.2%      19.4%       23.9%
                           =====      =====       =====
Total                      100%       100%        100%
Actual # homes asked       737        1353        2090


home broadband spring

On November 11, 2002 the West Georgia Telecommunications/Technology Alliance (WGTA) hosted a recorded talk in Waco by BellSouth's chief in Georgia then, Phil Jacobs. [Aside: Jacobs was named an Executive in Residence at the Richards College of Business at SUWG on April 3, 2008.] He began his talk with a statement that not only remains relevant as we write this seven years later, but seems to be the dominant issue now preventing broadband Internet use from becoming universal among US adults:

The 'Digital Divide' is not just about infrastructure... it's also about people who are educated enough to be able to use that infrastructure, and organizations who are enlightened enough to take advantage of it.

- Phil Jacobs, head of BellSouth in Georgia
November 11, 2002

Aware of this commonly underestimated barrier, in March 2001 I circulated a 30-page whitepaper titled Reflections on the newly-financed Haralson County Development Authority fiber-optic network and the future of economic development. My goal was to educate the local lay public, especially business and community leaders, on the potential realistic uses of digital telecommunications in the years ahead. If I may say so myself, even after a nearly a decade, it is not so dated it fails to be very helpful in carrying out its original mission.

Mr. Jacobs went on to say that 36 customers then used the Buchanan "wire center" for ADSL service. This included people not only in Buchanan per se, but folks up to 18,000 "wire feet" (not "crow-flying" feet) from the BellSouth building in Buchanan. Below, we tabulate the entire census report he gave for the WGTA service area (Haralson, Carroll and Heard counties).

Wire center  Customers
===========  =========

Bowdon           96
Carrollton      599
Temple           56
Villa Rica      181
Roopville        14
Bremen          200
Buchanan         36
Tallapoosa       75
Franklin         17

            Households      Number of
            "qualified"  DLC boxes using
County       for ADSL     ADSL "remotes"
========    ===========    ==========
Carroll         67%            44
Haralson        38%             ?
Heard            9%             0
Note that the total for the three Haralson wire centers was 200+36+75 = 311 subscribers, compared to roughly 10,000 households. In this nation, households then outnumbered businesses by a huge margin in ADSL use. So one might guesstimate that already in Nov. 2002, as many as 3% of the homes in our county subscribed to ADSL service. And this was despite the fact that over three in five households could not even get service if they wanted it! If we posit (perhaps over-optimistically) that the incipient demand in the non-served area would have been the same as in the served area, the "virtual" number of subscribing Haralson households would have risen to 818 - a virtual "take rate" of about 8%.

USA broadband use rate

How did this November 2002 rate here compare with the USA as a whole then? A Pew Internet & American Life survey of American adults about (October 2002) that same time revealed that only 12% said they could not get broadband service at home, while 71% affirmed they could. So when we see in the graph at the left that about 23 million (i.e. 12%+ of) US adults had broadband at home then, we deduce the USA total broadband take-rate was only about (12%/71to88%) = 14to17%, merely twice that of the "virtual" Haralson ADSL take-rate.

+ taking the number of (adult) Americans then to be (30/16%)=187.5 millions, as implied by the linked report.


home Internet majority

When in October 2003 the CPS asked about Internet use, here were the estimated results for the households in Georgia:

Number of households:                   3,403,201
Households with 1+ persons who
        use the Internet from home      1,829,070   (54%)
Households with NO persons who
        use the Internet from home      1,574,131   (46%)
Thus by late 2003, a solid majority of Georgia households included at least one person who used the Internet from home. Of the "using" households, about 2/3 had "dial-up" (telephone line) Internet access. The others had fast "broadband" access - like ADSL and cable modems.


home broadband majority

According to FCC data, by December 2006, there were 82.6 million broadband lines in the United States, with over 58 million (70%) serving residential customers. When in October 2007 the CPS again asked about Internet use, here were some of the estimated results (as reported in Networked Nation: Broadband in America 2007)


Data from the Current Population Survey (October 2007), U.S. Census Bureau 
Household Internet use (percentages)

                        home    home    home    
                        total   dialup  broadb  anywh  nowhere 

Bachelors degree or +   84.06    9.65   74.15   90.73    9.27 
Total Householders      61.71   10.67   50.79   71.04   28.96 
Elementary:0-8 years    18.51    5.37   13.10   25.64   74.36

Total New Hampshire     74.90    9.88   64.93   80.60   19.40 
Total Georgia           61.73    7.73   53.91   71.95   28.05 
Total West Virginia     49.11   16.10   32.72   58.20   41.80

Rural Georgia           58.82   11.36   47.46   69.25   30.75
Note the very small gap between rural and total Georgia use, and the fact that only about 1 in 10 folks exclusively depend on Internet access outside of home, where 6 of 10 are served. Perhaps many of the 3 in 10 not online by 2007 likely never will be, save perhaps by "hidden" ways like the use of turn-key VoD devices, etc. (This notion is further explored in the section below for 2009.)


wireless Internet majority

USA use of the Internet is closely and frequently studied by the respected The Pew Internet & American Life Project. Of particular interest to casual readers is the page devoted to the latest trends. As of this writing (October 2009) the following fractions of adult Americans are Internet users:
        Either gender:  79%
        Men             81%
        Women           77%
In asking if and when Internet use by US adults might rise to become "universal," one can also consider studies probing how many US adults read at least one book (codex) during the year. A recent answer: one in four adults read no books at all in the past year, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released August 21, 2007. This means that despite almost universal nominal US adult literacy, only about 73% "are book readers." Yet no one asks when reading books might become "universal" among adults at long last. Why should there be another standard when we ask about Internet use?

Adult subgroups with particularly high fractions of Internet usage include:

        HH inc. $50K+:  94%+
        College deg.+:  94%
        Ages 18-29:     92%
           speaking):   84%
Adult subgroups with lower fractions of Internet usage include:
        HS grad only:   69%
        Non-Hisp black: 67%
        Rural:          65%
        HH inc. $30K-:  60%
        Not HS grad:    50%
        Age 65+:        42%
Public comments about ARRA funding for increased broadband Internet rollout were recently solicited by the national government. Among the responses was the following.

Lack of awareness of the benefits of broadband represents the largest barrier to broadband adoption. According to Connected Nation, nearly one-half (44%) of those with no home broadband connection say "I don't need broadband." Approximately 40% of parents report no need for having a computer in the home, and nearly one-third (30%) of parents who do not have a home broadband connection say they see no need for a broadband connection. In rural areas, the numbers are even more troubling. Approximately 42% of rural residents without a home broadband connection say it is because they do not need broadband.

- US Chamber of Commerce
April 13, 2009

The rise of broadband Internet use in American homes is not the only epochal communications story of the last generation. At least as significant is the explosion in wireless (cell) telephone use. This preceded the boom in Internet use, with a US penetration of fully 40% in 1997, the year we style above as part of the home Internet spring. As we write this, in merely one human generation since deployment, 85% of US adults now own cellphones. And these handy gadgets are hardly peculiar to the United States. Notably, Europe led this country in adopting their use by a considerable interval. By the start of 2008 so much of even the developing world was exploiting them that there was one cell phone for every two people alive on earth.

For most of this ascendancy, cellphones had been used to provide almost nothing but remote voice communications. But now we are entering an exciting new phase in the communications revolution. Very little communications capacity ("bandwidth") was needed merely to transmit an audible rendering of the human voice - especially given the poor sound quality we so long tolerated for the sake of portability. But now the cellphone and broadband revolutions are merging and ever more cellphone infrastructure can support broadband "data" applications like transmitting video imagery. This is only being accelerated by the ever-increasing ability to embed powerful data processors and huge memories in cellphones to give them the awesome capabilities we only associated until recently with high-end desktop computers. The "cellphone" form factor is now eagerly gobbling up all sorts of electronic functionality - like photography, music and podcast playback, e-book display and the provision of location information along with navigational assistance - ever more becoming the universal electronic assistant we all will carry, more essential (and thus more ubiquitous) than wristwatches and eyeglasses were in the twentieth century.

Cellphone networks are based on expensive, giant towers providing antennas for wired radio transceivers that enable wireless connectivity for cellphone users (usually at least all but) everywhere in a vast area. Pending the upgrading of such facilities to support broadband connections, a simple but important step was taken to help Haralson County residents enjoy wireless broadband Internet access - and without any user fee at that.

In March 2004, Dr. Ron Feigenblatt donated and attached a wireless access point ("WAP") to the wired broadband Internet endpoint at the year-old Buchanan-Haralson Public Library to establish a WiFi "hotspot." Such access points provide highly localized connectivity - typically no more than about 100 yards, even in the absence of walls. But they make it easy for one - or multiple - portable wireless devices (provided by library patrons) like laptop computers, game consoles and all manner of personal digital assistants (including "hybrid" WiFi/cell phones) to enjoy broadband Internet connectivity - something that would not come at low-use-fee via terrestrial wiring to vast portions of Haralson County for some years yet. This WiFi hotspot was among the very first within the many hundreds of public libraries in Georgia - we can only document four alleged predecessors. It certainly was the very first in the West Georgia Regional Library system and even preceded the four-WAP-complex hotspot deployed at the main public library in Rome, Georgia by most of a year. Over the years, visitors could often come to the library in teeny (population one thousand) Buchanan and see three laptop computer owners using the WiFi hotpot simultaneously.

Originally, the zero-fee Buchanan library WiFi hotspot was available 24/365. After library hours, local people could sit in their car in the north parking lot of Buchanan's Historic Courthouse and enjoy access even then. But in late 2008, the hotspot was extinguished after library hours for the reasons elaborated here. Happily by then, inexpensive residential ADSL service was enabled for much more of Haralson County. And many dozens of residential broadband Internet users in Bremen, Georgia were sharing their connections at no cost via WiFi WAPs (almost certainly 24/365) with anyone willing to park their car on the street curb near one of their homes. (See the bottom of the Web page here for documentation.)

Today business travellers have over 286,000 hotspots around the world at their disposal, compared with 53,700 five years ago, according to JiWire, a mobile audience media company.

- The Economist (Nov 17th 2009)

As we write this in October 2009, WiFi is widely used to connect wirelessly to the Internet: the registry at JiWire documents 285,053 free and pay WiFi locations in 140 countries, including 455 in Atlanta. Multiple restaurants in Haralson County - family firms and corporate giant McDonald's alike - provide free WiFi service to their patrons. By August 2010, NPR reported: Since 2002, more than 6,000 of the 8,000 private campgrounds in the country have added wi-fi, the bulk of which happened in the last couple years. So-called netbook computers, which can exploit these hotspots, are available in single quantity as refurbished units for well under $200.

In July 2009, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported the following:

More than half of [adult] Americans - 56% - have accessed the internet
wirelessly on some device, such as a laptop, cell phone, MP3 player, or game

[47% of US adults have laptops.] Some 80% of laptop users have connected to the internet using a wireless network such as WiFi and 37% have used a longer range wireless broadband connection such as an AirCard... 61% of those between the ages of 18 and 29 have laptops and 55% have used it to connect to the internet on a wireless network... 68% of college graduates have laptops and 58% have used a laptop to connect using a wireless network.

The report notes that, for the present (2009):

Not all Americans have cell phones that easily (or at all)
permit online access, and 3G [3rd Generation, i.e. broadband
cellular phone] networks that make that feasible are not
Examples of "smart" (cell) phones which are oriented to Internet access include Apple's popular (21.17 million units sold as of Q2 2009)) iPhone and the Verizon Droid.

The near future

wireless broadband "everywhere"

Early in 2004, the Washington Post could write this: Last week [in the Washington DC area]... I had broadband anywhere I took a laptop -- in my living room, at my desk, in a deli and on a speeding Metro train. This was courtesy of a 3G network provided by Verizon it called EvDO (Evolution Data Only). Now, with the recent switch between analog and digital encoding of terrestrial broadcast television in United States, and the concomitant evacuation of vast portions of television radio-frequency spectrum, this new space will be exploited to start providing even faster 4G [4th Generation] cellular service. As reported here, Verizon Communications' ...soon-to-be-built 4G wireless network [is] ...set to go live in 2010... Verizon will continue to build out the 4G wireless network and expects to blanket the continental U.S. and Hawaii with the new wireless network by 2015. Such deployment, if and when accomplished, is especially of interest to rural areas like Haralson County, on account of the much better ability of signals in this new frequency band to penetrate forest.

The Communicators

- a good way to keep up-to-date

An effective, non-technical way to keep abreast of important long-term developments in modern communications and their impact in the United States is to follow the wonderful C-SPAN series of half-hour interviews called The Communicators.

As we write this, the plethora of program access choices, most of them free, is rather confusing, and seems to reflect an archiving regimen in major transition. The program is available for viewing both as a weekly, live, paid cable/satellite television broadcast, and as a free, Internet-fed, video-on-demand collection of the entire series, indexed with written abstracts, here. (Another online aggregation of the series episodes, at YouTube, which lack the written abstracts, is here.) A limited number of recent programs are also available as audio podcasts at the bottom of the Web page here. RSS feeds can also be extracted from the linked Web pages, for tracking by a suitable RSS Reader program.

Note that The Communicators is a "talking head" interview program, which I have never seen use any visual aids, making an audio version virtually as useful as a video version for people not interested in the visual body language of the speakers, but in what they are saying, and perhaps the tone of voice (auditory body language) they use to express it. (This means the able-sighted can listen on a portable audio player while using their eyes to do something else, like drive to work or do routine manual chores.) Finally, one can consult the C-SPAN video archive here to pull up epsiodes, which sometimes include written transcripts which assist in searching the video or quoting from it in written form.

FYI: A very interesting chart showing the uptake of many important electronic technologies in the USA between 1920 and 2000 appears here.