Thanks to fiber to the home, high-speed cable service, and 4G wireless broadband, most Americans enjoy access to all the 21st century has to offer.
However, connection speeds in rural and remote parts of America lag behind the urban centers. Over the past two years, this rural broadband gap has been documented by the aggregation of a National Broadband Map, which identifies areas across the country that are underserved or lack broadband coverage altogether. The creation of this map was funded by the Federal Department of Commerce under American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
One Economy, a nonprofit that helps low-income people gain access to broadband connections, and the New America Foundation, a partner in Future Tense, have contributed to the national broadband map by surveying America’s Pacific Island territories: Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Marianas Islands. In the process, we discovered that a combination of high prices and slow download speeds give our nation’s Pacific territories the dubious distinction of having the most expensive Internet access in America.
Because different Internet service providers’ services offer different packages of speeds for different prices, the best way to compare the services is the price of a megabit per second.
Of the three U.S. Pacific territories, Guam is the most fortunate. It sits at the intersection of several major undersea telecommunications cables, which gives the island access to tremendous bandwidth. As a result, the monthly cost of a 1 megabit per second (mbps) DSL connection in Guam (advertised speed) is very similar to the prices paid by AT&T and Verizon customers on the mainland. If a customer buys a faster tier of Internet service, the price per mbps goes down.
Prices in the Northern Marianas Islands and American Samoa are much higher. The Northern Marianas Islands are only 100 miles north of Guam, yet their Internet is much slower, and their prices are nearly five times higher than those in Guam. In 2010 IT&E, the largest Internet service provider in the NMI, received a federal stimulus grant to upgrade the undersea cable linking the NMI to Guam. However, prices for consumers have not yet fallen.
Moreover, bandwidth in the NMI is so constrained that purchasing higher tiered packages actually increases the price per megabit. But even these relatively good prices are too high for many: Only half of those who use the Internet in NMI have broadband at home. Most without it cite cost as the prohibitive factor.
In American Samoa, the situation is far worse. The American Samoa Telecommunications Authority does not even offer broadband DSL at speeds of 768 kbps, which the Department of Commerce considers the bare minimum for “broadband” today. (BlueSky, the only other Internet service provider on American Samoa, is not any faster or cheaper and only offers cable, not DSL.) With ASTCA, residential packages top out at 256 kilobits per second—not much faster than the typical ’90s dial-up connections on the mainland. ASTCA’s 768 kbps package for businesses costs a whopping $175 a month, giving American Samoa the most expensive Internet in America. Since American Samoa has a GDP per capita of roughly $8,000 and an unemployment rate near 30 percent, high-speed Internet is simply out of reach for the vast majority of Samoans.
These statistics are for maximum advertised speeds as stated by the telecommunications providers. But data from tens of thousands of speed tests run by consumers in the three Pacific territories, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands reveal actual Internet speeds that are one-fifth as fast as Hawaii’s. In fact, connections are slower than the least developed countries of Eastern Europe, including Albania, Belarus, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In American Samoa, the average measured download speed is 66 kbps, just 7 percent of the FCC’s minimum standard for broadband. Advertised download speeds in Guam can top out at 25 mbps, but the average measured speed is 91 Kbps.
Together, slow connections and unaffordable pricing strangle economic development on the islands and badly hamper residents’ ability to engage in e-commerce, online learning, telemedicine, and even communication with the outside world. And in places as isolated as the Northern Marianas Islands and American Samoa, digital ties to the outside world are all the more necessary.