What are unserved and underserved populations?

In the glossary of the National Disaster Recovery Framework the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) originally used the term ‘underserved population’ to describe groups with limited or no access to resources or who are otherwise disenfranchised. However, in the context of broadband, the phrases unserved and underserved have acquired new meanings.

Currently, the terms unserved and underserved are used by state broadband offices to differentiate between areas where broadband service is available and where it is at a speed sufficient for use based on current applications.

A place classified as "unserved" under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is one that has either no broadband connectivity at all or internet service with speeds less than 25Mbps/3Mbps. A place without internet service with speeds of 100 Mbps to 20 Mbps is considered "underserved."

Why are unserved and underserved populations important?

Jake Varn, an associate manager with Pew's internet access initiative, points out that state legislatures around the U.S. have used a variety of definitions to describe the unserved and underserved before the IIJA's enactment in 2021.

In his memo to state broadband offices, Varn makes the case that since these speed definitions have evolved over time to accommodate modern technology, states should adopt more flexible definitions that let their broadband offices modify their thresholds to conform to federal funding requirements.

“As states take a larger role in bridging the digital divide, it will be increasingly important for their broadband offices to retain enough flexibility to adhere to federal funding requirements while also maximizing those dollars for their communities.”

Using Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data, U.S. based research firm BroadbandNow estimates that approximately 42 million people in the country have no broadband connectivity at all or lack internet service with speeds above 25Mbps/3Mbps.