Philadelphia and the Digital Divide: Substantial Progress Since 2019, but Work Still to be Done

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, October 22, 2021

Weekly Digest

Philadelphia and the Digital Divide:

Substantial Progress Since 2019, but Work Still to be Done

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of October 18-22, 2021

John Horrigan

Public policy initiatives can make a positive difference in tackling social problems. Given the skepticism many Americans have about the efficacy of government-led interventions, the preceding sentence might qualify as a headline at The Onion. However, times of crisis motivate people to marshal the resources to solve problems. Evidence from a new survey of Philadelphia households shows that publicly-led collaboration can have an impact—in this case on the digital divide.

A June-July 2021 survey of 2,500 Philadelphia shows that—in the aftermath of the public, private, and philanthropic sectors coming together—there has been substantial progress in closing digital gaps in the city. In 2019, American Community Survey (ACS) data showed that 70% of Philadelphia households had wireline broadband at home, a figure that grew to 84% according to the “Connecting Philadelphia” report. That is a sizable change. The Pew Research Center, for instance, shows that, nationally, broadband adoption grew from 73% to 77% over a similar timeframe. What accounts for the fast growth rate in the City of Brotherly Love? Connecting Philadelphia cover

Free or Discount Plans Make a Difference—Especially for K-12 Households

The survey shows that some of this above-average growth is due to people taking advantage of free or discount internet offers. The survey finds that 9% of Philadelphia households have signed up for free or discount internet programs, such as those made available by Comcast Internet Essentials, T-Mobile Project 10million, or PHLConnectED. In other words, of the 14-percentage point increase in home broadband adoption from 2019 to 2021, free or discount offers account for 9 points. Many (about two-thirds) of those who have signed up for free or discount offers say it would be difficult for them to have service without these service plans. This means that these offers are doing two things: they are easing the financial burden of connectivity for many households and adding new ones to the network.

Discount offers also have the highest incidence among target populations. Some 21% of households with kindergarten through 12th-grade students have signed up for one of these discount or free offers. For low-income Philadelphians (those whose incomes are below $20,000 annually), 17% had taken advantage of one of these offers. Given that 31% of low-income Philadelphia households lost internet connectivity during the pandemic due to difficulty paying their internet bills, these offers serve an acute need.

Another key finding from the survey is that K-12 households made sizable strides in home internet and computer access. The 2019 ACS survey showed that 79% of K-12 households had broadband then, a figure that stood at 91% in the Philadelphia survey. The share of K-12 households with desktop or laptop computers rose from 76% in 2019 to 85% in 2021. For high-speed internet subscriptions at home, this means that 12,000 Philadelphia K-12 households lacked service in mid-2021, substantially below the 28,000 figure based on 2019 ACS data. Since early efforts to tackle the digital divide in Philadelphia focused on schoolchildren, it is heartening to see that a large share of positive impacts has accrued to households with school-age children.

Progress Doesn’t Mean Resting on Laurels

Although progress has been significant, other data shows that sustaining it will take continued work. The survey finds that one-third of Philadelphia households are “subscription vulnerable,” in that their economic circumstances may mean they cannot maintain their home subscriptions. These households either lost service at some point since the pandemic began, would find it hard to keep it without free or discount plans, or live at or near the poverty level. This comes to 32% of all Philadelphia households and 39% of K-12 households.

Another cautionary data point pertains to awareness of free and discount offers. About one-third (31%) of those surveyed had heard of discount internet offers such as Internet Essentials, T-Mobile’s Project 10million, or PHLConnectED. Only 13% had heard of the Federal government’s Emergency Broadband Benefit, which launched about one month prior to the survey. There may also be issues concerning ease of enrollment. Among low-income households, 26% did not have time to apply (which can be a proxy for problems encountered during the enrollment process) and 7% found the sign-up process to be difficult.

Barriers Remain: Affordability

Notwithstanding progress, the Philadelphia Household Internet Assessment Survey shows gaps among certain demographic groups. Older adults (age 65 and above) are less likely to have high-speed subscriptions at home, with 67% saying they have service. And only 5% of older adults have signed up for a free or discount offer. Spanish-speaking Hispanics also have lower adoption rates. Of households who chose to take the survey in Spanish, 67% subscribe to broadband. 

For households without home broadband, the survey finds that cost is the chief culprit. Among these households, 56% said the monthly access fee was a barrier and 50% said they could not afford a computer. When asked to specify the most important reason for not having service, clear patterns emerged:

  • Affordability: 42% cite something having to do with the cost of having service, such as the monthly service fee (27%), cost of a computer (12%), or past-due bills (3%).
  • Smartphones: Some one in five (22%) say that the smartphone is sufficient for their online needs. This group of non-broadband subscribers is more likely than others to say they have options for internet access outside the home.
  • Not interested in service: 14% say they do not want or need high-speed service.
  • Digital readiness: This category, totaling 12%, encompasses skills (5% who are not comfortable using a computer) and security (7% who worry about the privacy and security of their personal data).

The survey also asked broadband subscribers to identify the monthly cost of service that they would consider too expensive for their household budgets. Some 90% said they considered $20 per month to be too expensive. Many of these respondents have service at rates above $20—often well above. They think service is too expensive, but not unaffordable. At lower income levels, however, households subscribe to service—in many cases costing more than $20 per month—and may face real trade-offs. Do they forgo some goods and services in order to make sure the internet is there for their school-age children?


To sustain progress, the Connecting Philadelphia report recommends the following:

  • Increase awareness of discount internet programs: Public and private investments in outreach to communities in need could facilitate enrollment.
  • Target populations with the most need: Low-income households, Spanish-speaking individuals, and older adults all have shortfalls in the adoption of digital tools. Tailoring strategies to specific needs could make sense. Low-income households may need free or discount internet plans, while older adults may need digital skills training.
  • Promote and support a city-wide approach to digital equity: This could mean soliciting participation from residents in designing initiatives to address broadband gaps and enlisting trusted community anchor institutions (such as public libraries) to develop and administer digital navigator and digital literacy undertakings.

Note: The survey was conducted with the support of the City of Philadelphia and the collaboration with Wilco and CentriTech Foundation in developing it.

John Horrigan is a Benton Senior Fellow. He designed the Philadelphia survey and analyzed the data.

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Upcoming Events

Oct 22—The Decade of Digital Inclusion (Marconi Society)

Oct 26—Protecting Kids Online: Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube (Senate Commerce Committee)

Oct 26—October 2021 Open FCC Meeting

Oct 26—Listening Session for Tribal Leaders, Staff, and Outreach Partners on Expanding Tribal Library Participation in the E-Rate Program (FCC)

Nov 2—Lessons from the First Internet Ages (Knight Foundation)

Nov 3—Meeting of the Communications Equity and Diversity Council (FCC)

Nov 9—Protecting Political Speech While Reducing Harm on Social Media (Information Technology & Innovation Foundation)

Nov 10—Task Force for Reviewing the Connectivity and Technology Needs of Precision Agriculture (FCC)

Nov 16—Where Network Intelligence Meets Public Policy (Marconi Society)

Nov 18—How Will Online Advertising Work In A World Without Cookies? (Center for Data Innovation)

Nov 18—November 2021 Open Meeting (FCC)

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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