States Look at the Data as They Try to Address the Digital Divide

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Monday, March 15, 2021

Digital Beat

States Look at the Data as They Try to Address the Digital Divide

John Horrigan

A recurring phenomenon in national discussions of the digital divide is the “smack my head” moment. That’s when well-intentioned people decide that an online tool will solve an important problem, only to be dumbfounded when someone points to the fly in the ointment: many of the people they want to reach lack internet access.

Perhaps the first recorded example of this phenomenon was the Medicare prescription drug plan, which became operational in 2006. Giving older adults options for discount prescription drugs was undoubtedly a good thing. But it required beneficiaries to acquire and share information to take advantage of it. To help, the federal government proposed an online “plan finder” to allow people to compare options. The problem, in 2006, was that only about one-quarter of older adults used the internet. The latest example of this is vaccinations for the coronavirus. Older Americans, 22 million of whom are not online, have generally been first in line for eligibility, but many struggle to navigate online sign-up systems or cannot get to them at all.

The good news is that policymakers and other stakeholders are becoming more aware of the hazards of assuming everyone has online access. Many are interested in understanding the places where online access may be lower than the norm and the population groups that may have limited or no access to the internet. Recent work I have done sheds light on some of these issues. Close examinations of high-speed internet adoption gaps in Maryland, Connecticut, and Illinois highlight the variations among different geographies and demographic groups. Two key points are worth highlighting from those broadband adoption reports, which are based on an analysis of American Community Survey data.

Broadband affordability problems are statewide

To oversimplify, people tend to think that affordability of service is the main barrier to broadband adoption in urban areas and network availability is the main problem in rural America. But the data show a more nuanced picture.

  • In Maryland, 59% of residents of Baltimore City have wireline broadband subscriptions, a number well below the statewide figure and driven by the city’s high poverty rate and legacy of residential segregation. But the data also show that many rural counties in Maryland have home broadband adoption rates comparable to Baltimore – about 60%.
  • Affordability is a challenge regardless of where people live. In Illinois, 45% of households in metropolitan areas whose incomes are below $25,000 have a wireline broadband subscription. For households in that same income category in non-metro areas, the figure is 44%.
  • Even wealthy states have pockets of very low broadband adoption. Connecticut has one of the nation’s highest levels of income per capita but also contains cities with very low home broadband adoption rates. Just 57% of households in Hartford have wireline broadband subscriptions and 48% of New Britain households have such service.

Those who rely on smartphones the most are economically distressed

The pandemic has drawn attention to the sorts of computing devices that are most appropriate for certain applications. Research has shown that reliance on a smartphone is not associated with high rates of homework completion and, for older adults especially, telehealth sessions on a smartphone may not be very satisfying experiences.  The smartphone is a broadly popular computing device, but its place in people’s suite of digital tools varies by income. Data from the state broadband adoption reports highlight this.

In Illinois, 86% of all households have at least one smartphone, a higher rate than for desktop or laptop computers (77%) or tablets (61%). Two-thirds (69%) of low-income households (those whose annual incomes are below $25,000) have a smartphone while half (50%) have a desktop or laptop computer. Similarly, some 88% of Maryland households have at least one smartphone, 82% have a laptop or desktop, and 67% have a tablet.

But a close look at the data shows how smartphone adoption patterns differ across income categories. At the upper end of the income distribution (households whose incomes exceed $150,000 annually), the presence in households of smartphones and other computing devices is the norm. Taking Maryland as an example, 98% of upper-income households have a desktop, laptop, or tablet computer, and about the same number (97%) have a smartphone. For lower-income Maryland households, there is often a choice between smartphones and other devices. For Maryland homes whose incomes are $25,000 or below, 60% have a desktop, laptop, or tablet and two-thirds (67%) have a smartphone. Low-income households are far more likely to rely on the smartphone as the only computing device. About one in five (19%) low-income households in Maryland have only a smartphone; just 1% of upper-income households rely only on a smartphone for computing.

There is also a racial component to these patterns. Data from Illinois, Maryland, and Connecticut show that African Americans and Latinos are less likely to have wireline broadband at home, but as likely (or more) to have smartphones. This is evident in urban settings. In Baltimore City, it is clear how race and poverty add up to low adoption rates of digital tools. Among Baltimore City African Americans whose household incomes in 2019 were $25,000 or less:

  • 36% rely on the smartphone as their only computing device.
    • This is nearly three times the rate (13%) for poor white households in Baltimore and far higher than the 4% figure for all upper-income Baltimore homes.
  • 27% of poor African American Baltimore households have wireline broadband.
    • That is half the rate (48%) of poor white Baltimore households and well behind the 85% wireline broadband adoption figure for upper-income Baltimore homes.

A takeaway from these data points is that low-income homes often are managing a scarcity of digital tools, while upper-income households face few trade-offs. And the unfortunate irony is that the smartphone – truly a modern wonder – is often the necessary choice for low-income households. Yet it has severe limits as a means to do homework, apply for government benefits, or connect with a medical professional.

States are focusing on broadband planning, digital inclusion, and partnerships

Although many states are looking at data, they also want blueprints for action. Each of these broadband adoption reports offers recommendations for state policymakers to consider. Prominent among them is to make digital inclusion someone’s job in state government. Both the Illinois and Maryland reports call for the establishment of a digital inclusion coordinator for the state. The three reports also suggest developing public-private partnerships to expand awareness of discount internet offers and computers.

A growing number of state policymakers view closing the digital divide as a part of larger strategies to address the economic and social disruptions of the pandemic. This is heartening to see. Having data on the nature of the gaps should help them as they formulate policies to get more people online.

John B. Horrigan is a frequent contributor to Benton's Digital Beat and a Senior Fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, with a focus on technology adoption, digital inclusion, and evaluating the outcomes and impacts of programs designed to promote communications technology adoption and use. Horrigan is also currently a consultant to the Urban Libraries Council. He served at the Federal Communications Commission as a member of the leadership team for the development of the National Broadband Plan. Additionally, he has served as an Associate Director for Research at the Pew Research Center, where he focused on libraries and their impact on communities, as well as technology adoption patterns and open government data. Views expressed here are his own.

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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