US Census Bureau finds stark rural-urban broadband divide
- Broadband subscription rates remain lower in rural counties, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent American Community Survey (ACS) five-year estimates, covering the years 2013 through 2017. The survey found that "completely rural" counties had a broadband subscription rate of 65%, compared to 67% in "mostly rural" counties and 75% in "mostly urban" counties.
- Low broadband rates were found across the upper Plains, the Southwest and the South; Arizona, New Mexico and south Texas were some of the regions with low rates, along with the lower parts of Mississippi and Alabama and areas of the Carolinas and southern Virginia.
- According to the survey, median household income declined in 7.1% of counties compared to the 2008-2012 survey, while it increased in 16.6% of counties. Both the San Jose, CA and San Francisco metropolitan areas saw some of the biggest increases in household income, along with Washington, DC and Bridgeport, CT.
The federal government has been working to close the rural-urban digital divide and get high-speed internet to the roughly 24 million Americans who lack home access. A January 2018 report from a federal task force on agriculture and rural prosperity identified the "expansion of high-speed, high-capacity internet" as a "key infrastructure priority,” and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has spent millions on local grants for internet. The White House included $50 billion for rural efforts in its failed infrastructure plan, and there’s hope that the new Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives could revive some sort of infrastructure plan that would include investment in rural broadband. Even some private companies like Microsoft have upped their own rural outreach.
The latest ACS numbers — which reflect findings from the 2,316 counties with population too small to complete single-year ACS estimates — reinforce how stark the digital divide is. Among counties where fewer than 60% of homes lacked broadband internet subscriptions, 88% were mostly or completely rural. Lack of access was also associated with household income; in the average county with a median household income below $50,000, about 65% of households had broadband internet, compared to 76% of households in the average county with median household income of $50,000 or more.
However, the digital divide was also felt within cities. For example, in the Chicago metropolitan region, Cook County had a subscription rate of just 77% compared to 92% in nearby Kendall County. The District of Columbia had a 78% subscription rate compared to 93% in Loudoun County, VA.
Activists have tried to draw attention to the urban digital divide, which can leave entire neighborhoods in cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Memphis, TN without adequate internet access. While closing the rural divide will involve building more infrastructure, cities have found that closing the urban divide can be tackled through steps like increasing education, expanding discounted subscriptions and distributing equipment.
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