Internet access in Southern Nevada still has significant gaps

Southern Nevada is underperforming when it comes to providing internet access and affordable rates to residents, county commissioners were told Tuesday.

As elected officials look at using federal dollars to expand broadband access, Clark County heard from the economic development consultant firm HR&A Advisors to receive an assessment on infrastructure capabilities in the region and go over policy recommendations going forward.

Based on limited data provided by federal agencies, including the Federal Communications Commission, Simon Mettler with HR&A Advisors said the report “found indications that the prices for the average internet broadband plan in Clark County is quite a bit higher than the national average.” 

On average, 50 megabits per second, the unit of measurement of how fast the internet is, costs $47 nationally jumping to $69 at 200 megabits per second. The presentation noted that Clark County’s average is $70 and $90 respectively, between a 30% and 50% increase.

(Slide from presentation to Clark County by HR&A Advisors, Inc.)

The firm looked at three components: access, or the infrastructure-based availability of broadband in the area; adoption, which includes digital literacy, computer availability and willingness to purchase plans; and affordability. 

“When it comes to the adoption side of things, in terms of the number of people taking up and using broadband internet plans, we found Clark County is not at the bottom of the pack when it comes to peer counties but right in the middle with about 70% adoption rate,” he said.

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(Slide from presentation to Clark County by HR&A Advisors, Inc.)

The numbers varied among census tracts represented by different income levels. 

“A significant number of census tracts and neighborhoods throughout the county are reporting less than 50% take up of broadband internet,” he said.

The areas with the least access, the presentation noted, have an average income of $32,000. 

Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick said she suspects conditions might be worse than what was presented, but questioned where to find the data to support that suspicion.

“I feel I need to ask all the providers to prove us wrong or show something different,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that there are a lot of census tracts, historical census tracts, that have less than 50%. I think it’s worse than that. I think it’s not telling the truth. Where should I ask for the data? I have no problem asking out loud my expectations and if people don’t produce them, you can’t complain if you don’t share your resources.” 

The data the presentation is based on, which is provided by the federal government, is limited.

More detailed data “is really only available from internet service providers today,” said Danny Fuchs with HR&A Advisors. Communities across the country “have often had difficulty getting household-level information out of internet service providers because that is proprietary data that internet service providers maintain,” he said.

The FCC, he said, is planning to update its information but efforts will take some time.

The presentation notes fiber-optic cables, a needed tool in broadband services, are limited to 30% of county households, and “expanding fiber is critical to the County’s economic future.”

County Commissioner Justin Jones asked if the county went forward with investing in fiber cables could it require an internet provider to hand over requested information as a condition of the county’s financial support.

“Is there any reason that if we decide to make an investment in fiber that we couldn’t say to any of the other providers that you can’t hook into our fiber unless you provide us with the data we’re requesting?” he asked.

County legal staff didn’t have a readily available answer at the moment but said they would see if that was an option. 

Fuchs said other cities and states have deployed similar tactics. 

“I would say the technique of incentivizing data sharing or other practices through public-private partnerships or the private use of publicly funded infrastructure is precisely what government agencies are seeking to do in cities, counties and states across the nation right now,” he said. 

The presentation comes as the county is looking to expand broadband internet access and attempt to close the digital divide, a gap in resources between wealthy areas and low-income neighborhoods.

Commissioners said the pandemic has underscored the importance of expanding internet access. 

Schools transitioned to online learning while businesses transitioned to work from home, but those without internet or broadband infrastructure often struggled.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the bipartisan legislation that Congress passed in November, includes historic funding for roads, bridges, clean water and broadband internet.

Nevada will receive $100 million to expand broadband internet service. 

Fuchs also suggested “exploring internet service providers that may be interested in public-private partnerships who are not in the county but may be interested in meeting your public policy goals and developing a more competitive environment for the county.”

Other suggestions in the presentation include requiring affordable housing development to include fiber connections and building a broadband program team within the county.

The county didn’t take action on the item. 

“We need to keep moving forward and figure out who our partners are and who they’re not,” Kirkpatrick said. 

Internet access in Southern Nevada still has significant gaps

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