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Understanding the Urban Digital Divide

The latest FCC report on broadband services estimated that 19 million Americans still lack access to high-speed internet services. A recent Bloomberg analysis found evidence suggesting the true figure of offline households was likely double the FCC’s estimates. While the digital divide pre-dated the pandemic, having so much of American life shifted online—from education to work to medicine—has highlighted and exacerbated many existing broadband access issues.

Much of the focus on the digital divide has centered on the gulf between rural and urban areas. However, census data revealed that while approximately 5 million rural households do not have access to broadband, this problem is three times as large in urban areas—with around 15 million urban or metro households without broadband.

Yet the reasons for this digital divide is not the same in rural and urban areas. In rural areas, coverage and affordability are the challenges. In urban and metro communities, digital literacy and education are the principal reasons.. Policymakers must understand these differences and encourage tailored solutions.

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What is Broadband?

Residential access to broadband has become exponentially more important to how Americans work and learn. An internet connection, at sufficient speed, is critical for innovation, jobs, upward mobility, and improved quality of life. Policymakers of both parties, and the FCC, have made universal broadband access a priority.

Broadband refers to the transmission of data over a high-speed internet connection. The FCC has benchmarked this at a minimum of 25 megabits per second (mbps) download and 3 mbps upload, which is around 125 times faster than the latency requirements two decades ago. Broadband can be delivered in various ways:

  • A digital subscriber line (DSL) which transmits data over traditional copper phone lines.
  • Cable based internet connections run on the same lines that deliver television to a house. The speed tends to vary based on the number of users on that service at a certain point in time.
  • Fiber optic cables transmit data using pulses of light sent through fiber strands. It is the newest broadband service and, while much faster and more secure than other systems, is less available due to the time it takes to lay the cables.
  • Wireless broadband delivery, which differs from wireless internet service by using a wireless connection for the last mile and a cable or DSL for the rest. It is more common in larger settings, like college campuses or downtown cities.
  • Satellite broadband uses orbiting satellites to provide internet coverage and is most common in rural or sparsely populated areas. This coverage is slower than other broadband types and can be disrupted by poor weather conditions that block the sky.

Urban Digital Divide

When thinking about digital inclusion, policymakers must broaden the focus from broadband infrastructure and access to include education and digital literacy. Pew Research has found that broadband non-adoption rates are higher among older, poorer, and less educated groups as well as communities of color. Urban areas are more likely to have clusters that fit these demographics, which is why, by population, the digital divide is three times larger in urban areas than rural ones.

What explains the remaining gaps in adoption? Advances in broadband technology provide near-universal coverage in urban metro areas. That differs from rural regions where infrastructure is often lacking due to the geographic size of no-service areas. Affordability, while still an important factor in why some households remain offline, can be considered a secondary issue in urban areas due to various programs that subsidize costs for low-income households.

The key challenge with urban adoption rates for broadband is that many households choose not to have it even if it is available.

The bulk of broadband non-adopters claim they have “no need” or “no interest” in getting it. This is despite the benefits accruing from access to telemedicine, e-government services, health advice, job skills trainings, job applications, or easier retail options. The pandemic-induced move to virtual school, for example, has created a “homework gap,” particularly among low-income urban households without broadband. According to Pew Research data, the number of school-age children who do not have the available internet resources to complete schoolwork at home are far more likely to come from Black, Latino, and lower-income households.

Additionally, offline groups are less likely to invest in the necessary devices required to unlock the breadth of digital services. In some cases, there is broadband service provided for a census block of houses, but not all residents can afford the cost of connecting to service. Unconnected households with available coverage can be miscounted by internet service providers, which means the FCC may underestimate the digital gaps in urban and more densely populated areas. The cost of non-adoption serves to worsen other existing inequities.

Reframing how we approach broadband access

The digital divide is a national problem. It should not be framed purely as a bifurcation between rural and urban access. In the urban sphere, there is little need to build large infrastructure networks or undertake complex studies. Rather, the solutions need to be centered around education, digital literacy, and demonstrating the internet’s relevance and benefits.

Despite the increasing proliferation of online services, some people will prefer to access different services in person. Policymakers still need to address the widening gaps that result from non-adoption, but not all solutions should be geared towards technological adoption. Understanding why people resist high-tech tools, whether it is deliberate or lack of awareness, will be a key determinant for the best strategies to mitigate inequalities that arise from non-adoption.

For those that wish, or need, to access online services, improving community awareness about how and where to access digital services is critical. For example, community organizers can advertise discounted broadband plans, provide educational material about available online services and how to access them, offer digital support services, and subsidize equipment (like laptops) that can enhance a user’s experience.

Digital inclusion is not simply about broadband access or affordability. The urban digital divide has its own unique challenges that are more related to relevance and digital skills. Policymakers should consider broader dimensions when it comes to solving the digital divide to ensure the benefits of the online world are shared equitably and mitigate against inequalities that arise from non-adoption.

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