Digital Divide in High-Speed Internet Access Leaves Rural Areas Behind

Date: December 15, 2021

Four of the five counties with the lowest levels of broadband access in the United States—below 40%—are in the country’s most rural areas.

The bipartisan infrastructure package President Biden signed into law in November 2021 includes $65 billion for improving broadband or high-speed internet access, particularly in underserved areas. Indeed, data from the American Community Survey (ACS) for 2015-2019 indicate a rural-urban “digital divide” in broadband service (via cable, fiber optic, DSL, cellular, or satellite internet), as shown by the map below.1

Note: The County Type (Degree of Urbanicity) categories are aggregations of Urban Influence Codes, which were developed by the Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture. Estimates are subject to both sampling and non-sampling error.


So, what do the data show?

  • Nationally, 83% of households had broadband internet service. The share was slightly higher for households in the largest metros at 85%, compared with 82% of households in smaller metros and 75% of nonmetropolitan households (including 75% of households in the most rural areas). But these figures masked stark differences at the county level.
  • Of the 432 counties in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, more than half (251) had household broadband subscription rates at or above the U.S. average—as did 226 of the 734 counties in smaller metro areas. These numbers compare to just 8% of counties outside metro areas (152 of 1,976).
  • In 287 of the nation’s most rural counties—as well as 260 nonmetro counties that border smaller metropolitan areas—less than 70% of households had high-speed internet access. These areas include parts of Appalachia, the southeast (including the Mississippi Delta), the southwest (including American Indian reservations in Arizona and New Mexico), the northern Great Plains, and Alaska. Meanwhile, the household broadband access rate was below 70% in just 23 counties in large metros.
  • Access to high-speed internet was particularly spotty in 170 counties nationwide, where fewer than 60% of households had a broadband subscription. Of these counties, 70 were in the most rural areas, while another 69 were nonmetro counties bordering smaller metros.

Broadband access was especially low in some counties. Nationwide, four of the five counties with the lowest levels of broadband access—below 40%—were in the country’s most rural areas:

  • Telfair County, Georgia (34.8%)
  • Guadalupe County, New Mexico (37.8%)
  • Apache County, Arizona (37.9%)
  • Monroe County, Alabama (39.8%)
  • Wheeler County, Georgia (39.9%)

One important note: The ACS maps discussed in this article differ from broadband availability maps provided by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other groups. While the FCC and other provider maps show where high-speed connections are (or could be made) available, the ACS data show where households lack broadband either because it is not available or because they cannot afford it. This enables users to better understand the characteristics of households that do not have broadband access, regardless of the reason.

Why are these data important? People need access to broadband internet service to telework, pursue educational opportunities remotely, pay bills, and connect with friends and family. Indeed, broadband has become a tool for promoting economic development.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made such access more important than ever. For example, students in underserved communities faced the biggest challenges in remote schooling during pandemic-related school closures and may have experienced greater learning loss than students with broadband access at home.2 And increasingly, people are using the internet for telehealth activities (such as doctor’s office visits), which has not only helped maintain social distancing during the pandemic, but has allowed people in rural areas to avoid traveling long distances for care.3 Given such developments, many communities—particularly in rural areas—may be at risk of being left behind.






  1. U.S. Census Bureau, Table B28002, 2015-2019 American Community Survey.
  2. Mike Cummings, “COVID School Closures Most Harm Students from Poorest Neighborhoods,” YaleNews, Jan. 5, 2021.
  3. Mike Walker, “Biden Administration Seeks to Expand Telehealth in Rural America,” New York Times, Sept. 19, 2021.