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Progress in closing the digital divide is greatest where poverty rates are declining the most

     Horrigan 

Broadband may not be able to solve all the problems relating to social inequality and poverty, but addressing them is likely to be much harder if substantial portions of the low-income population lack broadband access at home. New analysis of broadband adoption in a selection of cities shows a strong relationship between low household broadband adoption levels and poverty. The analysis also shows that rising economic tides in cities has little to do with recent growth in broadband adoption – but that declines in poverty rates do.

The analysis — conducted for the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition and the Kansas City Public Library — focused on Kansas City because of its role as Google’s first “Fiber City.” The research, using American Community Survey (ACS) data, compared Kansas City (the combined cities in Missouri and Kansas) to a set of comparable cites on broadband adoption. As Google’s first Fiber City in 2011, Kansas City became a focal point for discussion on the digital divide, in part because Google brought resources to help address the problem. Did the digital divide narrow from 2013 to 2018 more rapidly in Kansas City than in other comparable cities?

The answer, for Kansas City, is mixed. In 2013, 67.1% of households in Kansas City had broadband compared with 72.7% of all households in the United States. By 2018, the gap had narrowed substantially: 84.1% of homes in Kansas City had broadband of any kind, nearly the same rate as the nation (85.1%).

The numbers for low-income households are not as encouraging. For Kansas City households whose annual incomes were $20,000 or less annually, 40.4% had broadband in 2013, a figure that grew to 56.0% in 2017 (the most recent year for ACS data on broadband by income). Although that represents strong growth, the 15.6 percentage point increase trails the 18.3 percentage point gain for a set of comparable cities used in the analysis.

Poverty and Low Broadband Adoption Go Hand-in-Hand

Digging deeper into the data indicates that, for Kansas City and comparable cities, broadband adoption is mainly about poverty. Cities with the highest poverty rates tended to have the lowest home broadband adoption rates, but they also (from 2013 to 2017) showed strong growth in adoption, perhaps because of a “room to grow” phenomenon. A greater pool of potential subscribers among low-income households rearranged household expenditures to subscribe to broadband, got broadband via smartphones, or took advantage of discounted plans available in some areas (more on that below). Additionally, where poverty rates exhibited strong declines in recent years, broadband adoption growth was comparatively fast. Cincinnati, for instance, had a poverty rate of 28.7% in 2017 (down from 30.4% in 2013) and saw its home broadband adoption rate for low-income households grow from 33.6% in 2013 to 66.6% in 2017. Sacramento saw a relatively large decline in poverty of 2.1 percentage points from 2013 to 2017 broadband adoption among low-income homes increased from 45.0% to 68.9%.

Rising Economic Tides Do Not Raise the Broadband Adoption Boat

Although the link between broadband adoption and poverty may not be too surprising, the findings pertaining to economic growth metrics may be. Looking at 25 cities that are comparable to Kansas City shows that indicators of regional economic growth have little connection to broadband adoption growth in those cities from 2013 to 2017. That is, there was little correlation between job growth, income growth, and growth in regional GDP and growth in broadband adoption. This may be an artifact of where society is on the adoption curve, as the period for analysis saw broadband adoption grow roughly from 70% to 80%. Most people with decent jobs – and the skills to get them – already have broadband at home. The overall implication is clear: Rising economic tides do not, today, raise the broadband adoption boat.

The Kansas City analysis points to the need to fold broadband adoption into strategies to fight poverty. This is well worth considering, but with a cautionary note that Burcu Baykurt has recently raised. Poverty’s roots may date back many years in a given city and hoping that there may be a technological fix for it may be, at best, naïve. Yet many of the social services that might address poverty – education, public health, public transportation, workforce development skills, and more – may have better outcomes for citizens with home broadband subscriptions and the skills to use digital tools. But a “tech push” approach is not likely to be successful: simply giving low-income households broadband and assuming residents may use it to address health care or workforce training needs is not likely to pay off.

Training and Affordable Broadband Service Plans Can Increase Broadband Adoption

Fortunately, research points to ways for broadband to work in conjunction with digital skills training to encourage the use of broadband for education and economic advancement. A 2018 study of recent Comcast Internet Essentials (IE) subscribers shows that training in digital skills makes a significant difference in boosting the rate at which people use the internet to search for jobs search or access education. Low-cost internet offers for low-income households aren’t merely attracting households who might otherwise subscribe; rather, they increase broadband adoption at a rate greater than subscriber gains in places without low-cost offers. Research by Greg Rosston and Scott Wallsten shows that two-thirds of broadband adoption growth (from 2011 to 2015) in places where Comcast Internet Essential is offered is attributable to the IE program, with the remainder likely representing households that would have subscribed to broadband in the absence of any program.

Putting affordable broadband initiatives in place requires leadership at the city level. As city leaders contemplate changes in service delivery that “smart” technologies enable, they should be aware of those lacking digital tools – and understand that, with the right leadership, solutions are available.


Benton welcomes John B. Horrigan, who will be a frequent contributor to the Digital Beat in 2020. John is 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.

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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