Wealthiest in Washington area get best high-speed Internet values, study says

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2011; 11:06 PM

Residents of the wealthiest parts of the Washington region tend to get the best value in high-speed Internet service, paying less for faster speeds, according to a new study from American University.

The report, released Friday by the university's Investigative Reporting Workshop, analyzed speed test and pricing information for high-speed Internet users in the greater Washington area.

It found that people in the 25 richest Zip codes in the region spend about one-third less on average than those in the 25 poorest Zip codes for similar Internet access speeds.

Subscribers in suburbs including Fairfax, Montgomery and Arlington counties spend about $9.58 per megabit per second. Residents in the lowest-income neighborhoods, which include rural areas and parts of the District, pay about $31.17 per megabit per second, according to the study.

The monthly bill in wealthier areas is typically higher - $55.05 compared with $51.29 in the poorer areas - but speed tests showed poorer areas get much lower speeds for the money.

"The original digital divide was about access, but we are now moving into a territory where we are understanding that the real barrier to access is about price and value," said John Dunbar, author of the AU report.

The findings complement data released Thursday by the Commerce Department, which also showed that many wealthy areas of the nation are getting faster broadband Internet speeds than poorer parts of the country.

The federal data, however, were collected from Internet service providers based on their maximum advertised speeds. The Commerce information didn't include broadband prices.

AU's report, taken from a much smaller survey sample, comes from 4,294 consumer speed tests on Ookla, an online service recommended by the Federal Communications Commission for testing the speed of a broadband connection. And the university study takes into consideration monthly costs reported by users.

"This is all new and very valuable information for policymakers and consumers that will frame discussions going forward," said Lee Rainie, director of research at the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project.

Experts say that even though the AU report sample size is modest, it provides insights that the federal map doesn't. The agency showed that 10 percent of the nation doesn't have access to speeds fast enough to download Web pages or watch videos.

The agency said it will update its map every six months and will improve its speed information by adding results from consumer tests, although that pricing is difficult to analyze.

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