Analysis: Digital Divide Isn’t Just a Rural Problem

What good is a broadband network if you can’t afford to subscribe or don’t know how to use it? By these measurements, the U.S. has a long way to go not just in rural areas but in urban ones as well.

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The digital divide – the “haves” and “have nots” when it comes to internet access and use – is an abiding concern for telecom and internet policymakers at all levels of government. At the federal level, the digital divide today is predominantly seen as a problem of network deployment in rural areas. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), notwithstanding criticism of its metrics, emphasizes that most of the 21 million people who do not have access to networks at a 25 Megabit per second download speed live in rural America. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently proposed a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to invest $20.4 billion to connect up to 4 million homes and small businesses in rural America.

But the Commission’s focus on deployment means policymakers miss an entirely different dimension of the problem – broadband adoption. Ensuring the ubiquity of high-speed networks is a laudable goal. But if a lot of people are not subscribing even when networks pass their residences, that’s a different problem. Analysis of broadband adoption data shows that:

  • The digital divide is more about consumer adoption than it is about network deployment;
  • The problem extends to non-rural and rural areas alike, and;
  • Household economics is a larger driver of non-adoption decisions than geography.

Broadband Adoption and Geography

The most authoritative data on broadband adoption comes from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), which has an annual sample of 3.5 million households and includes questions on broadband subscriptions. According to 2017 American Community Survey (ACS) data, 16.5% of Americans do not subscribe to broadband at home. Although a higher share of rural households lacks a home broadband subscription than non-rural ones (by a 21.2% to 15.4% margin), the number of households without a broadband subscription is larger in non-rural areas. (NOTE: This analysis uses the Census definition of rural. See “How this story defines rural” at the bottom of the article.) The ACS 2017 one-year estimate shows that there are 20.4 million U.S. households overall without a broadband subscription. Some 5.1 million are in rural areas, with the remaining 15.3 million in urban or metro areas.

Lesson 1: More non-broadband subscribers live in non-rural areas than in rural America.

Broadband Network Deployment
(Graphic by John B. Horrigan)

Network Deployment and Reasons for Not Subscribing

Of the 20.4 million households who do not subscribe to broadband, how many do so because their network service options are inadequate? The best way to address this question puts Pew Research Center data to work. A 2019 Pew survey finds that 22% of non-broadband subscribers say a reason they lack service is either because they cannot get service where they live, or their available options do not offer service at an acceptable speed. Translating that into households (based on the ACS figure of 16.5% of homes not subscribing to broadband) yields an estimate of 4.5 million homes without broadband because they have no or inadequate networks to serve them. Of the 20.4 million households not subscribing to broadband, about 16 million do not subscribe even though a network passes their house that is amenable to subscription.

Lesson 2: Nearly 80% of the broadband adoption gap is due to factors other than network deployment.

A message from the Rural Assembly

If It’s Not Mainly about Networks, What Are the Barriers?

If non-broadband adoption happens in rural and non-rural areas alike and network deployment does not loom large as a barrier, then what prevents people from subscribing to broadband? The following table from a recent Pew Research Center report sheds light.

 

 

Reason listedMost important reason cited
The monthly cost of a home broadband subscription is too expensive50%21%
Your smartphone lets you do everything online that you need to do*4523
You have other options for internet access outside of your home4311
The cost of a computer is too expensive

 

316
Broadband service is not available where you live, or is not available at an acceptable speed227
Some other reason I haven’t already mentioned (SPECIFY)1713

 

It turns out that a number of factors – such as monthly fee, cost of the computer, and the capacity of smartphones, far outpace network issues as reasons people offer for not subscribing to broadband. In fact, cost factors – either monthly fee or a computer – are the most important reasons (when combined) that people do not subscribe to broadband.

Given the role cost plays in reasons non-broadband adopters cite, it is no surprise that household income is a key differentiator in broadband adoption rates. ACS data shows that just 59.3% of households with annual incomes of $20,000 or less subscribe to broadband; for everyone else, that figure is 88.0%. Rural gaps are smaller than income-based ones. Some 78.8% of rural households subscribe to broadband; even in more remote rural households (those neither in metropolitan nor micropolitan areas) nearly three-quarters (72.7%) of households subscribing to broadband.

The Digital Divide Is a National Problem

There is no question that rural areas have broadband access challenges that are distinct from non-rural ones. Analysis of FCC data on network deployment in the upper Midwest supports the notion that rural areas have slower network access speeds; places that are mostly urban have higher levels of “digital distress” than others.

But a more expansive examination of the digital divide underscores the national scope of the problem and draws attention to factors such as affordability as part of the overall digital divide. Policy approaches to addressing affordability means ensuring that internet service providers offer discount service plans, as well as community resources for free or low-cost computers, tech support, and digital skills training. These approaches are equally relevant to rural and non-rural areas. Local governments also have a role to play in investing in the capacity for anchor institutions whose clients’ needs increasingly have to do with access to digital tools and training in digital skills. Policy solutions for the digital divide should be flexible enough to serve the needs of a nation that is diverse geographically and demographically.

John B. Horrigan is a senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute. He was research director at the Federal Communications Commission for the development of the National Broadband Plan.

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NOTE — How this story defines rural: This article uses the Census definition of rural. The Census uses the population characteristics of individual communities within counties and offers a more refined measurement of rural than the metropolitan/nonmetropolitan county system employed by the federal Office of Management and Budget. Under the Census definition, about 19% of Americans, or 60 million people, are rural. Under the OMB county classification system, the nonmetropolitan county population (often used as a substitute definition of rural) is 47.1 million, or about 14% of the U.S. population. The Daily Yonder generally uses variations on the OMB county classification system because most data we analyze is reported only at the county level.

A message from the Rural Assembly

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