Neighborhood broadband data makes it clear: We need an agenda to fight digital poverty

A technician gets cabling out of his truck to install Google Fiber in a residential home in Provo, Utah, January 2, 2014. Provo is one of three cities Google is currently building and installing gigabit internet and television service for business and residential use.  REUTERS/George Frey (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS TELECOMS)

How would you feel if half of the homes your neighborhood didn’t have electricity? Or if a quarter didn’t have running water? It’s hard to imagine, mostly because the United States benefits from near-universal access to electricity and water.

That’s not the story for another crucial utility: broadband, or high-speed internet service. Digital platforms have transformed most parts of daily life, from how we talk to one another, to how we consume media, to how we travel. But those platforms are only meaningful if you can access them via broadband.

In 2018, more than 18 million American households lived without a broadband subscription. This means that today’s digital economy is out of reach for far too many people.

The digital gap between urban and rural parts of the country tends to garner the most attention. However, our analysis of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) data tells another story: The majority of digitally disconnected households live in metropolitan areas, and the gaps are especially large when comparing neighborhoods within the same place. Effectively, some residents live in digital poverty even as their neighbors thrive.

Until metropolitan leaders and their state and federal partners can address the situation, we can expect a kind of digital segregation to persist across metropolitan America.

Broadband inequities are more than a rural issue

Broadband gaps in rural areas are pervasive—it’s expensive for internet service providers to reach places that are sparsely populated or geographically isolated. This kind of market failure demands a response from Congress and state legislatures who want to ensure all Americans get physical access to broadband networks.

But rural issues overshadow an even larger national challenge: a lack of universal broadband adoption in metropolitan areas of all sizes. From dense urban cities to emerging exurban counties, 13.9 million metropolitan households live without an in-home or wireless broadband subscription, according to 1-year ACS estimates. That’s more than triple the 4.5 million rural households without a broadband subscription.

What’s unique about metropolitan broadband gaps is the variation within the same community. Even though urban cores and mature suburbs in the nation’s largest 100 metro areas have the highest median broadband adoption rates, they also experience the widest variation among their residents (Figure 1). Policymakers must look beyond top-level adoption numbers to understand where metropolitan broadband gaps exist and what drives them.

Figure 1

Digital poverty in metropolitan America

Data on the metropolitan broadband gap reveals a misconception in our dominant economic narrative. While it is true that some metropolitan areas house the industries and workforce leading the country’s tech-powered economic growth, that doesn’t mean every resident of those high-growth markets are able to join the digital age.

To get a sense of broadband disparity within metropolitan areas, we compared broadband subscription rates within census tracts, or an area roughly equivalent to a neighborhood of 5,000 people. We used standard deviations to measure discrepancies in broadband adoption, finding that larger deviations indicated a higher level of broadband inequality in a given metropolitan area.

Select a metropolitan area

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In general, metropolitan areas with the highest overall broadband adoption rates tend to have the smallest discrepancies between neighborhoods (Figure 2). Metro areas such as Seattle, San Jose, Calif., and Colorado Springs, Colo. all have well-connected neighborhoods and fewer outliers. On the other hand, Memphis, Tenn., El Paso, Texas, and New Orleans have lower overall adoption rates, signifying the large gaps between neighborhood subscription levels.

Figure 2

To understand just how deep these disparities run, we created a measure of digital poverty to flag those neighborhoods with the lowest levels of broadband connection. We have defined a tract as experiencing “digital poverty” if half the households do not have a wireline subscription and half the households do not have a wireless subscription. For reference, of the roughly 46,000 tracts across the 100 largest metro areas, 3,362 tracts (7.2%) are in digital poverty.

Some regions perform well on digital poverty indicators. The Colorado Springs, San Jose, and Provo, Utah metro areas, for example, all have zero tracts in digital poverty. Moreover, in a quarter of the 100 largest metro areas, less than 3% of tracts are experiencing digital poverty.

Though these numbers are promising, they are by no means universal. Eight metro areas, all in the Southeast, have more than 20% of their tracts in digital poverty.

Digital poverty is akin to an entire neighborhood with spotty electricity or unreliable water service. These are places where students struggle to engage with digital coursework and adults can’t check online job boards. Digital poverty is a tangible drag on economic prosperity.

Map 1

Metro Name % of Tracts in Digital Poverty
McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX 47.3
Jackson, MS 26.7
Lakeland-Winter Haven, FL 34.2
El Paso, TX Metro Area 30.1
Augusta-Richmond County, GA-SC 30
New Orleans-Metairie, LA Metro Area 22.9
Birmingham-Hoover, AL Metro Area 22.8

How policymakers can close intraregional digital divides

Metropolitan areas cannot maximize their economic potential if residents live in digital poverty. Lack of broadband adoption stymies educational and labor market opportunities, and as long as some households remain disconnected, they will not be able to access government-provided online services such as filing tax returns or renewing a driver’s license.

Addressing digital poverty requires moving beyond the urban-rural divide and the geography of physical networks. Local leaders, plus their state and federal peers, need a new agenda focused on comprehensive digital equity. That should include:

  • Expanding digital equity tracking, to objectively understand where network and adoption gaps exist and easily communicate the results to policymakers.
  • Building networks of local champions, ensuring community advocates, government officials, and private network providers share intelligence, debate priorities, and deploy new programming.
  • Funding digital equity programs, including a mix of device subsidies, digital skills curricula, and means-tested subscription benefits.

Broadband is essential infrastructure, and we need to start treating it as the same kind of elemental priority as electricity and water service. That process begins by recognizing the extent of digital poverty found across metropolitan America.

Interactive maps produced by Alec Friedhoff