Here’s what new census data says about broadband in the US

The U.S. Census Bureau released new data showing how the population changed on a county-by-county basis between July 2020 and July 2021, information analysts said offers interesting insights for cable companies, fiber players and policymakers alike.

In a report issued late last week, the Census Bureau noted nearly three quarters (73%) of counties across the country experienced a natural decline in their population over the aforementioned period, which occurs when more deaths than births occur. That compared to 45.5% of counties in 2019 and 55.5% in 2020. Every country in Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island experienced a natural decrease.

But the report also highlighted shifts attributed to population migration, with 58% of counties gaining and 41.8% losing residents due to this reason. Los Angeles and New York counties lost the greatest number of residents to migration, while Arizona’s Maricopa County, California’s Riverside County and Texas’ Collin County gained the most.

In terms of absolute numeric declines, Los Angeles County, New York County and Cook County in Illinois led. Topping the numeric growth list were Maricopa County, Collin County and Riverside County.


Recon Analytics’ Roger Entner told Fierce Los Angeles is home to AT&T and Charter while New York is the stomping ground of Verizon and Altice USA. Cook County in Illinois and San Francisco County in California, which also experienced significant declines, are the territory of AT&T and Comcast, he said. Meanwhile, AT&T, Comcast and Charter all play in the major growth area of Dallas in Collins County, while Maricopa County is served by Cox Communications, Mediacom and Cable One. Most counties in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, where Ziply Fiber is looking to grow, also experienced a population increase.

Analysts at MoffettNathanson took a deep dive into what the map means for cable players in a note issued Tuesday, cross referencing the census data with Form 477 broadband footprint data from Q4 2020 to get a figure for weighed average population growth for each operator. The totals for Comcast and Charter came in at -0.1% and +0.1%, respectively. But Altice USA and Cable One saw larger swings of -0.4% and +0.7%, respectively, implying a “meaningful headwind” for the former and a “significant tailwind” for the latter, MoffettNathanson wrote.

Though MoffettNathanson’s team acknowledged “population growth is only a proxy for household formation” they argued there is “a clear correlation between population growth and reported broadband growth.”

Entner agreed the map could prompt those undertaking significant network expansions, like AT&T for instance, to reevaluate their “battle map.” In Frontier Communications’ case, though, Entner said population growth has less to do with its historic troubles with broadband losses. “Frontier’s fortunes are not being won and lost by population gain or loss. They’re won and lost by executing on a decent fiber strategy. That’s a lot more important,” he said.

But more than implications for operators, Entner said the census data provides a clear mandate for public policymakers.

“What I’m seeing here is that a lot of the areas that have previously had economic trouble, that was exacerbated by the pandemic,” he said. “That means public policy – and that means incentive funding – would and should have to double down on these areas that are the hardest hit. Because we want to give people even less reasons to leave these counties and being digitally connected makes them part of the entire U.S. economy and not just part of the local economy.”