In this new analysis, Opensignal investigates how the rural-urban divide in mobile network experience has changed in the U.S. since 2021. We observe that while the gap for 5G download and upload speeds between rural and urban areas has narrowed, 5G Availability has improved much faster in urban areas than in rural ones. A relatively low time on 5G means the impact of high 5G download speeds on overall experience is less in rural areas.
Opensignal looked at the evolution of 5G download and 5G upload speeds in urban and rural areas since Q4 2021. Our 5G users have observed significant improvements in their mobile network experience, especially driven by AT&T and Verizon’s 5G rollouts in the C-band through 2022. Compared to Q4 2021, average 5G download speeds in Q2 2023 have increased by 36.4% in urban areas and by 59.2% in rural areas. This means the rural-urban gap in 5G Download Speed has narrowed from 35.1% in Q4 2021 to 24.3% in Q2 2023.
Opensignal 5G users have also enjoyed a boost in average 5G upload speeds in the same period — by 10.9% in the cities and by 17% in rural areas. This means the disparity between urban and rural regions has also decreased for 5G Upload Speed. Average 5G upload speeds were 23.8% slower in rural areas compared to their urban counterparts in Q4 2021, but in Q2 2023 they were 19.7% slower.
However, the rural-urban divide has slightly widened for Download Speed Experience. This is because Download Speed Experience has increased by 53.6% in the cities and by 47.9% in the rural areas. Similarly, the boost in Upload Speed Experience has been relatively lower in urban areas (12%) than in rural ones (14.2%), which results in the marginal decrease of the rural-urban gap for Upload Experience, from 35% to 33.8%. The different amounts of time that users spend on 5G in rural and urban areas help to explain these changes in users’ overall experience.
If we see a gap noticeably closing for 5G Download Speed between urban and rural areas, why do the overall average speed metrics show the persisting rural-urban disparity? This is because 5G Availability has been increasing much faster in the cities than in rural areas. In Q4 2021 the difference in 5G Availability scores between U.S. urban and rural was only 5.7 percentage points — this gap has increased to 10.3 percentage points in Q2 2023.
There are a number of factors that explain these changes. On the one hand, low-band 5G was widely deployed by all three carriers prior to the end of 2021 which means that 5G Availability was already pretty good in rural areas. Such low bands cover large areas more easily and with fewer cell towers than mid and high bands. Also, the U.S. carriers have been focused mostly on mid-band deployments recently — especially Verizon and AT&T — because they have finally been able to deploy C-band. This 3.5GHz band boosts speed and capacity and is most suited to urban use, in other words, it helps boost the urban experience.
In terms of time with no signal, rural regions of the U.S. are catching up with the cities. The difference in time with no signal scores has gone down from one percentage point in Q4 2021 and Q2 2022 to 0.7 percentage points in Q2 2023 — meaning, the signal availability has improved in rural parts of America. However, Opensignal analysis reveals that smartphone users in rural areas spend more than twice as much time with no signal (1.3%) than those in the cities (0.6%).
Across the U.S. states, Opensignal observed the highest rural-urban gap for Download Speed Experience in New York, exceeding 40%. This means average overall download speeds in rural areas in New York were 41.4% slower compared to those in urban areas of this state — which translates to 28.1Mbps slower speeds. Washington and Virginia both see the rural-urban gap of 35%. Apart from New York — the difference in average overall download speeds between rural and urban areas in Illinois, Hawaii, and Washington is also more than 20Mbps higher. Both South Dakota and North Dakota have slightly faster Download Speed Experience in rural regions than in the cities.
Looking at the rural-urban gap in the context of 5G Download Speed — the state of New York sees the highest disparity again, with a score of 39.1%, ahead of Rhode Island. Our rural users in the smallest American state have a third slower average 5G download speeds than those in the city areas. On average, New York and Rhode Island urban areas have 67Mbps and 59.7Mbps faster 5G download speeds than in the urban areas.
Comparing the differences in how much time our users with active 5G subscriptions spend connected to 5G services — Opensignal observes the biggest gap between urban and rural areas in New York again, of 16.9 percentage points. Illinois follows in second place, with a rural-urban difference of 12.1 percentage points, ahead of Kansas (11.5 percentage points) and Nevada (11.4 percentage points). Montana and Wyoming have the lowest 5G Availability rural-urban gap, of 2.3 percentage points in both states.
We mentioned earlier that our users in rural areas still spend more than twice as much time with no signal (1.3%) as their counterparts in the cities (0.6%). Looking at individual states, the disparities are even more staggering. In Wyoming, time with no signal is four times as high in rural areas than in the cities, with West Virginia and Colorado seeing nearly four times as well. Illinois, New Jersey, and Rhode Island are three states where the difference in time with no signal between rural and urban regions is not statistically significant.
The digital divide is a burning issue in the U.S., with millions of Americans struggling with access to broadband connectivity. Expansion of fixed broadband services in rural areas is difficult for ISPs, due to technical and geographical challenges, high costs of building new infrastructure, and low population density, which makes investment cases less viable. Further 5G deployments — both mobile and fixed wireless — can be a valid alternative for rural users to gain access to stable connectivity in the future.
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