The stark geography of America’s digital divide

Many factors shape America’s digital divide.  The access we have to broadband – or even just to the internet – depends in part on our income, our race, our age, and our education.  (I’ve written about this.)

Perhaps the strongest driver of digital inequality is geography.  Simply put, the more rural one is, the worse the internet access is.  The more urban, the better.  Yes, there are exceptions, obviously, with some urban poor folks lacking access and some country people enjoying broadband.  But the pattern remains.

You can see it clearly in this week’s new Pew Research memo by Monica Anderson. To be clear, in this research they didn’t poll internet speeds, but Americans’ attitudes towards their internet access of lack thereof, so this measures subjective rather than objective responses.  But unless we want to view rural Americans as unusually cranky, and suburban/urban people as unnaturally cheerful, this should be a good guide to attitudes and probably their underlying reality.

To begin with, your attitude towards broadband depends on where you live:

roughly six-in-ten rural Americans (58%) believe access to high speed internet is a problem in their area.

By contrast, smaller shares of Americans who live in urban areas (13%) or the suburbs (9%) view access to high-speed internet service as a major problem in their area… [A] majority of both urban and suburban residents report that this is not an issue in their local community… [emphasis in original]

Interestingly, some non-geographic factors don’t seem to make a difference for rural people’s internet attitudes:

20% of rural adults whose household income is less than $30,000  a year say access to high speed internet is a major problem, but so do 23% of rural residents living in households earning $75,000 or more annually. These sentiments are also similar between rural adults who have a bachelor’s or advanced degree and those with lower levels of educational attainment.

Age and race do shape attitudes:

Rural adults ages 50 to 64 are more likely than those in other groups to see access to high-speed internet as a problem where they live. Nonwhites who live in a rural area are more likely than their white counterparts to say this is a major problem (31% vs. 21%).

Related to these attitudes towards broadband are access to two technologies:

adults in rural areas also are less likely to own mobile devices or to use the internet. While around two-thirds of rural Americans have a smartphone, those shares rise to around eight-in-ten among those living in cities (83%) or the suburbs (78%),

And listen to this part:

some rural Americans do not use the internet in any capacity: 22% of adults living in a rural area say they never go online, a share that is more than double that among urban or suburban residents.

More than one fifth of rural folks don’t go online, period.  Not “we don’t have broadband” or “we don’t use cell phones,” but they don’t do the internet.  Think about what that means in 2018, that separation from so much socialization, news, government services, education, businesses…  Think about how much “legacy media” is front and center in their lives.  What is this population’s presence in American culture?  How are they connected to higher education?

Now, nothing in this report should shock anyone.  The geographical divide over internet access has been a thing since the 1990s.  This study doesn’t reveal a new trend, but offers a datapoint on an established one.

I wonder about the politics.  If this many country people are unhappy with their poor broadband access, is there a constituency politicians can respond to?  Can state-level politicians bridge urban and rural populations with this issue?

At another level, Anderson’s research might also give us pause.  Why are we so accepting of this digital divide?  Mitigating is is clearly not a major priority for governments or businesses.  And what does it tell us about how we use technology, and about education’s future?

 

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3 Responses to The stark geography of America’s digital divide

  1. Evan Marwell says:

    The challenges of bringing broadband to rural America boil down to two things: 1) Money. It’s hard for service providers to build an economic case for investing in the infrastructure needed to serve these areas. 2) Ineffective regulation. The FCC’s Connect America Program (part of the FCC’s Universal Service Fund) was created to solve problem #1. The idea was that if you provide subsidies to service providers to build out their infrastructure in these areas they can make the economics work. The challenge is that the way the FCC defines the buildout obligations of companies that accept these subsidies is highly ineffective. Subsidies are tied to census blocks and the FCC considers that if a service provider builds to one household in the census block they now “serve” the census block. They also say that if they “could” build to a census block it counts as served. This is crazy – especially considering we are investing $4-5 billion per year in these subsidies. (You can see a GAO report on this issue here: https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-18-630). The other issue is that there is no transparency (i.e. data) and thus no accountability on where service providers have built infrastructure to.

    The same problem existed with the FCC’s E-rate program which provides funding for broadband in schools (and is also part of the Universal Service Fund). Fortunately, in 2014 the FCC created transparency in the program – making available the data on what schools were buying, from whom and at what price. We took this data and put it on a searchable website (www.compareandconnectk12.org) and it immediately created accountability for how funds were being spent. That, in turn, resulted in the number of schools with broadband rising from 30% to 98% in a four year period and the cost of broadband for schools falling 85% over the same time. As a result, 40 million more kids have the broadband they need in school for digital learning.

    The rural broadband problem is solvable. There is a tremendous amount of money being invested in the problem. We just need transparency, better data and better policy.

  2. Kenneth M Van Horn says:

    Electricity once had the same problem and the cure was the passage of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936. Perhaps the way to fix the current problem is to transition the role of Rural Electric Cooperatives into Rural Utility Cooperatives and allow them to distribute broadband.

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