Broadband Linked to Population Growth

Counties that have better broadband access tend to be adding population at a faster rate than counties that don’t have as much access. And the counties with the worst levels of access are losing population, a new study finds. 

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Counties with better broadband access are adding population at 10 times the rate of counties that lack good broadband connections, according to a study by an industry magazine.

The study by Broadband Communities found that counties in the bottom half of their states’ broadband-access rankings had a population growth rate of only 0.27% from 2010 to 2013. Counties in the top half of broadband-access rankings increased their population by an average of 2.79% during the same period.

The trend was even more pronounced for counties at the top and bottom of the broadband rankings. Counties in the bottom 10% lost population — a decline of 0.55% — while the top 10% of connected counties gained 3.18%.

“Good broadband is even more closely related to economic opportunity than has been realized,” said the study, which was released last month.

The study has special implications for rural areas. From 2010 to 2012, rural counties (defined as counties outside a metropolitan statistical area) lost population for the first time. Rural counties also have lower broadband access rates than metropolitan counties.

“The Broadband Communities study confirms a strong association between these two phenomena,” wrote the study’s author, Steven S. Ross.

The study used data from the Census and the National Broadband Map for all 3,144 U.S. counties plus the District of Columbia. It ranked counties by broadband access on a percentile basis within each state and then calculated population changes for counties grouped into those rankings.

The chart at the top of the story shows the result. Each dot charts a county on two coordinates: 1) the percentage of the population in the county that has access to broadband of 25 megabits per second or more (the horizontal axis) and 2) the percentage change in population size from 2010 to 2013 (vertical access).

The individual counties are scattered like grains of sand around the plot. But using regression analysis, the study found a general trend. That’s the blue line. As access to high-speed Internet increases, so does growth in a county’s population.

The analysis showed that about 10% of population change was attributable to the availability of broadband.

There’s always a “chicken or egg” question with studies like this. Are counties losing population because they lack broadband? Or are the counties that are losing population less likely to get good broadband in the first place?

Ross says the study can’t answer that question for sure. Anecdotal information from county leaders says it works both ways, he wrote: “Conversations with county and state officials suggest that, in some cases population loss was already ongoing, and in other cases lack of broadband seems to have caused the population loss.”

Because population change links directly to the economic health of a community (people tend to move toward economic opportunity and away from economic limitations), the study supports the notion that broadband plays a role in economic development.

The study used 25 megabits per second as its definition of broadband, citing a statement from Federal Communications Commission Tom Wheeler that this speed is “fast becoming the ‘table stakes’ in 21st century communications.”

 

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