The County-Seat Digital Divide

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A gap in broadband access separates urban and rural America. But the divide doesn’t end there. Some of the biggest access disparities are in rural counties themselves – between the people who live in the county seat and those who don’t.

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More and more applications and services are available online only. That sounds great, as long as you are connected.

The digital divide is a gap between those who are online and those who are not. Being online means more than just having service available in your location. It also means being able to pay for the service and knowing how to use it.

Remember the time when not knowing how to read and write put you behind? Well, being on the wrong side of the digital divide is similar.

To learn more about the digital divide, the June 2014 dataset National Broadband Map was analyzed. First several disclaimers:

First, the National Broadband Map has been criticized as having many issues, including the fact that the data comes from Internet carriers who self-report and probably over estimate coverage areas. Another thing, it counts an entire census tract as having coverage if one household in the entire tract has coverage.

Second, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 2015 broadband report used 2013 data (not clear if the June or December dataset) while this analysis used the June 2014 dataset. So, results are a bit different. Also keep in mind, total population may differ from the Census’ figure because again, data was aggregated from the National Broadband Map at the place and county level.

Third, this analysis used only advertised wireline – as in cables – broadband. You may be thinking, why leave wireless out? Well, wireless coverage is close to 100%, thanks mostly due to cellular coverage. However, cellular coverage includes limited data plans. Limited data plans undermine the potential of broadband. It is like having a Ferrari in an eight-lane highway full of speed bumps and a fuel economy of a mile per gallon. You won’t get far.

This analysis went a step further, however. Not only do we compare between urban and rural (using Office of Management and Budget core-based typology) but we also looked at the difference in access between county seats and the rest of the county in all three county types: metropolitan (counties with cities of 50,000 and up plus adjacent counties with strong economic ties) small city (micropolitan, cities of 10,000 but smaller than 50,000), and rural (noncore, no cities of 10,000 or greater) plus the nation.

The results are more than interesting.

The graph below shows the percent of the population per county type and the nation living in the county seats versus the rest of the county.

percentlivseat

Percent of population living inside and outside of county seats.

In other words, slightly less than a quarter of the population in rural counties lives in the county seats (23.6%) while a third of the population in metropolitan counties live in the county seats (33.4%). Keep in mind the rest of the county in metropolitan counties may include populous suburbs.

The graph at the top of this article shows the percent of the population with access to different advertised wireline broadband technologies: DSL, cable-modem, and fiber-optics sorted by rural status.

Notice the big difference between the access levels of rural people with access to DSL living in the county seat (“DSL seat”) versus those living in the (“DSL-county”). (Rural is shown in the purple bars). Frequently, people speak of DSL as a technology that is “everywhere.” But there’s a 25 percentage point difference (92.6% versus 68.3%) between rural county-seat residents and rural residents who live outside the county seat.

The same pattern but a greater divide occurs when looking at cable for rural residents (83.5% versus 38.4%). Fiber-optics, which is the king of wireline broadband because of the speeds it can achieve, is low overall. Hopefully, the divide between people in county-seats versus those living outside the county seat will not be as great as the divide for DSL or cable once it is deployed more extensively.

Still a skeptic? Since Internet is all about sending (uploading) and receiving (downloading) information, we averaged the population with access to advertised wireline broadband speed of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. The graph below shows a huge digital divide not only between metropolitan (90.4%) and rural (42.8%) counties but between county seat (seat) and the rest of the county (county), more so in rural counties.

 ruralitydsletc

Percentage of population with broadband access by metro/small city/rural status.(National Broadband Map)

Nearly two-thirds of residents in rural counties not living in the county seat lack access to broadband of 25 down / 3 up – the current standard as defined by the FCC.

Surely, some folks must be thinking that the population living beyond the city limits of rural county seats must not be a lot of people. Well, the next graph shows the actual number of people without access to 25/3 broadband. About 46 million people in the nation lack access at that speed or greater. About 10.4 million of those people are in rural counties. Of that number, 8.8 million live outside the county seat.

popcountyseat

Raw number of American residents who lack access to broadband, as defined by the FCC. (National Broadband Map)

The digital divide exists. Ironically, those who could benefit the most of being connected to the digital age and overcome the lack of density – rural communities – are the ones that lack access the most.

The carriers that provide Internet service say population density is not high enough in rural areas – the same investment in infrastructure yields a smaller market than in more population areas. That’s a valid argument. But here’s the question: Do we just, leave those people behind?

There must be a way to serve rural, low-density communities. After all, most of those same rural communities have electricity and water. In the 21st century, broadband is just as vital. It’s basic infrastructure.

Dr. Roberto Gallardo is an associate extension professor and leader of the Mississippi State University Extension Intelligent Community Institute. The institute helps rural communities transition to, plan for, and prosper in the digital age.

 

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