accessibility Digital Literacy

The FCC Says It Is All About Closing the Digital Divide. How Is It Doing?

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 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 September 21-25

Kevin Taglang
Taglang

The Federal Communications Commission’s top priority is closing the digital divide. In its latest inquiry into broadband deployment, the FCC asks how successful its efforts have been. Congress requires the FCC to determine each year if broadband is reaching all Americans in a timely fashion. For the past three years, the FCC’s Republican majority, relying on its faulty data, has concluded that broadband is being deployed to all Americans on a reasonable and timely basis. Will it do so again?

Benton collects news on universal broadband everyday for our Headlines newsletter. During the COVID-19 national emergency, we’ve featured article after article about how stay-at-home orders have impacted people. For people with robust residential broadband service, lockdowns may have been somewhat bearable. For people without reliable broadband, the pandemic has been devastating. 

Below we quickly review what we’ve been reading over the last six months, in hopes we get a sense of how close we are to ensuring that affordable broadband reaches everyone in America. Without accurate broadband data, perhaps a survey of reporting from communities across the country can help us answer the question.

Is Broadband Reaching Everyone in the U.S.?

Eighty-two percent of the 14.2 million residents in tribal zip codes have access to a wired broadband connection, compared to 94% of non-tribal zip codes. Only 33% of these residents have access to a low-price wired broadband plan under $60 per month, compared to 51% of non-tribal residents.[1]

Approximately one-third of Texan households do not have broadband service.[2] There are places — the woods of East Texas and the empty expanses of West Texas — where internet and even cellphone service is unavailable. Most of those places are rural.  About 21% of Bexar County, Texas, households do not have broadband internet, according to 2017 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.[3] In Brownsville, only half of all households have any type of broadband connection, and 11% of households only have a cellular connection.[4] The National Digital Inclusion Alliance recently released research into the “Worst Connected Cities of 2019”. At the top of the list were a pair of cities in the Rio Grande Valley region. Pharr, Texas, which is adjacent to McAllen, ranked as the least-connected city in the country with 59.66 percent of residents there having no access to the internet at all, including via cellular data plans. In addition, 68.75 percent of residents of the city, which is near the U.S.-Mexico border, did not have wireline internet connections.

In rural areas of Virginia, nearly a third of households have no access to broadband.[5] Over 600,000 Virginians have only one wired service provider, leaving them with no option to switch if they are dissatisfied with their service.[6] In urban communities where broadband is available, it may not be affordable. In fact, the census tracts with the lowest broadband adoption rates in the Commonwealth are not in rural Virginia, but in Richmond.[7] Roughly 10% of Arlington County’s 230,000 residents lack a home internet connection.[8]

In Alabama, less than 1% of Perry County’s roughly 9,100 residents have broadband at home.[9]

More than a million Georgians lack access to reliable high-speed internet service; of the more than 507,000 homes and businesses lacking service, nearly 70% of these locations are in rural parts of Georgia.[10]

According to the FCC’s own data, 70 of Michigan’s 83 counties have connectivity rates below the national average. Counties with the worst rates of connectivity (as low as 36% of households, or more than 4,000 homes) are in rural Michigan. This lack of access is a function both of rural poverty and inadequate infrastructure. In Wayne County, home of Detroit, 23,000 households lack high-speed internet access. In Ingham County, home to Lansing, it’s 22,000 households; in Bay County, 3,599; in Saginaw County, 5,584; and in Genesee County, home to Flint, over 4,000 households aren’t wired. These lower rates of access reflect the legacy of formerly thriving manufacturing communities, which have faced decades of institutionalized racism, concentrated poverty, and crippled public education, particularly for people of color.[11]

More than 40% of rural Wisconsin residents lack access to high-speed internet, according to the state’s Public Service Commission.[12]

An estimated 324,000 rural Marylanders don’t have access to broadband.[13] In 2018, 96,000 households in Baltimore (40.7%) did not have broadband service. In Baltimore City, nearly 20,000 households with children under the age of 17 do not have wireline broadband or computers at home, or 34.7% of such households. 64% of homes without broadband service are in the lower 40% of the city’s income distribution for households with children.  For home wireline broadband, 73.3% of white households in Baltimore City have this service compared with 50.2% of African American households and 46.4% of Hispanic households.  With respect to income, just 33.8% of low-income Baltimoreans (those whose annual household incomes are less than $25,000) have home wireline service compared with 83% for households whose annual incomes exceed $75,000.[14]

Approximately 1.5 million residents of New York City have neither a home broadband connection or a mobile connection on a phone or other device.[15] Bronx county in New York, the poorest of New York City’s five boroughs, has witnessed a sharp drop in broadband speeds during the pandemic. More than 1.41 million people live in the Bronx, a 42.4 sq mile (110 sq km) area, and their median broadband speed dropped 10Mbps.[16]

Only 47 percent of households in Philadelphia’s low- and moderate-income (LMI) tracts subscribe to broadband, well below households in middle- and upper-income neighborhoods (63% and 77%, respectively). Households in predominantly Latinx neighborhoods have the lowest subscription rates (47%), followed by 52% of households in predominantly Black neighborhoods and 76% of households in predominantly white tracts. The neighborhoods that show the highest subscription rates are concentrated in the center and northwest parts of Philadelphia, which are generally upper-income and predominantly white tracts. Low subscription rates appear to be concentrated in West, Southwest, and central North Philadelphia, which are lower-income, high-poverty, and predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods.[17]

Census estimates from 2018 show 29% of Cleveland households have no Internet access.[18]

About 952 households (22.8% of total) in Dayton’s Philadelphia Woods, Fairview, Hillcrest, Dayton View, Mount Vernon, and Santa Clara do not have internet access.[19]

John B. Horrigan, research director for the development of the FCC’s 2010 National Broadband Plan, estimates that somewhere around 18.5 million households lack broadband due to the high cost of service.[20] In 2019, the Pew Research Center estimated four in ten Americans making less than $30,000 a year lack either a home broadband connection or a computer.[21] Nearly 60% of people without broadband at home cite the cost of the subscription as the leading barrier to adoption.[22]

Blacks and Hispanics are 10 years behind whites in levels of broadband access and almost 4 times more Blacks have poorer tech connectivity than whites.[23]

Over half of those 65+ have a broadband connection at home, and about 67% use the internet.[24]

The Digital Divide’s Impact on Employment

For years now, access to broadband equates to access to jobs. But in 2020, having broadband at home means you can work from home, too. What does it mean to not have broadband at home?

Seventy-six% of Blacks and 62% of Hispanics could get shut out or be under-prepared for 86% of jobs in the US by 2045. If this digital racial gap is not addressed, in one generation alone, digitization could render the country’s minorities into an unemployment abyss.[25]

Job candidates who self-identify as Black/African American or Hispanic/Latino are 145% more likely to feel concerned about whether they are capable of doing a job remotely than white candidates. These numbers are a stark representation that minority candidates are significantly more worried about having the appropriate setup at home to be able to work remotely. Female candidates were 70% more likely to say having the right technology and resources was a concern. [26]

The Digital Divide’s Impact on Health

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, more of the nation’s medical care is being delivered by videoconference, as in-person care becomes a last resort for both doctors and patients. That’s a problem for tens of millions of Americans without smartphones or speedy home internet connections. For them, the digital divide is exacerbating preexisting disparities in access to health care.

The National Bureau of Economic Research published research[27] examining the role of the diffusion of high-speed internet on an individual’s ability to self-isolate during a global pandemic. Researchers discovered that while income is correlated with differences in the ability to stay at home, the unequal diffusion of high-speed internet in homes across regions drives much of this observed income effect. Devices in regions with either high-income or high-speed Internet are less likely to leave their homes after shelter-in-place orders go into effect. However, the combination of having both high income and highspeed Internet appears to be the biggest driver of propensity to stay at home. The digital divide appears to explain much inequality in people’s ability to self-isolate.

Many rural health advocates say that lack of broadband access is a social determinant of health. Researchers have a name for areas that have both low rates of home broadband and higher-than-national-average mortality rates for cancer and other diseases: “double-burdened counties.”[28]

Patients unfamiliar with or lacking access to technology already tend not to use online tools that can improve health outcomes and allow them to request appointments and prescription refills, as well as message their doctors directly. Telemedicine was supposed to increase access to health care during a national medical emergency, says Jorge Rodriguez, a physician at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital who also studies health care technology disparities. But for some, it’s just another barrier. “It’s become a lifeline,” he says, “but not across the board.”[29]

Deutsche Bank saw significantly higher mobility during peak COVID lockdowns in Black neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods. The average of the three is a breathtaking figure for the month of April, the peak of COVID lockdowns. Blacks had to venture out of their homes 135% more than whites compared to pre-COVID levels, during the riskiest of times across the cities. Deutsche Bank believes this is an accurate representation of the state of the racial digital divide in the country. Clearly, poor access to tech connectivity & work-from-home jobs rendered minorities with few choices but to venture out of home to make a living, even at peril to their lives.[30]

The Digital Divide’s Impact on Education

To combat the spread of COVID-19, schools throughout the country closed in 2020. As schools shifted to online instruction, the ‘Homework Gap’ evolved into a full-fledged learning gap. For families living in areas where broadband service is unavailable, not robust, or unaffordable, it is nearly impossible for students to keep up with schoolwork from home.[31]

As early as March 16, 2020, the Wall Street Journal was reporting on how 35 states had already mandated that all schools close in an effort to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, affecting at least 69,000 schools and about 35.9 million public-school students in kindergarten through 12th grade.[32]

Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, West Virginia, and Washington, DC, have the largest percentage of unconnected students, ranging from 26% to 28%, more than the national average of about 20%.[33] The issue affects a disproportionately high percentage of Black, Latino, and Native American households — with nearly one-third of students lacking high-speed Internet at home. Students in Southern states and in rural communities also were particularly overrepresented. In Mississippi and Arkansas, about 40 percent of students lacked high-speed Internet.[34]

One in four K-12 households in California do not have a desktop or laptop computer and a high-speed Internet connection. This represents about 870,000 families whose child or children are likely to fall behind in educational attainment during the COVID-19 crisis. If households with mobile broadband service are included, the share of households lacking resources for distance learning falls to 17%, which represents about 610,000 families. Only about half of the K-12 families in the bottom 20% of the income distribution have a desktop or laptop computer and subscribe to high-speed internet. This compares to over 90% of families in the top income quintile. Students eligible for free/reduced price meals are significantly less likely to have access to distance learning resources at home. While the gap is larger for high-speed internet and PC availability, it is only slightly smaller when families with mobile broadband are included. Households in coastal metro areas are generally better equipped than those in the rural communities of the Central Valley, Southeast  and Northern California. However, large concentrations of under-resourced households exist within metro areas. As an example, the availability of an internet-enabled PC at home for students in South LA is only slightly above that for students in Tulare County, which has the lowest availability rate in the state. After controlling for income, the chances that an urban household has a PC and high-speed internet are almost twice as large as those for a rural household. When the indicator includes wireless broadband, the relative odds for urban households are still about 75% higher. These results reflect the fact that rural students, regardless of income, are more likely to attend under-resourced schools where technology initiatives are less likely to be adopted. Black and Hispanic students are at greater risk of falling behind due to lack of distance learning resources at home. The chances that a Hispanic student lives in a household with a PC and high-speed internet are only about half relative to those for a non-Hispanic student, regardless of income and location. Similarly, the chances for a Black student are about 70% relative to those of non-Black students.[35]

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation’s second-largest school system attended by roughly 670,000 students across 900 campuses, estimated at the time that 25% of its families did not have internet access at home.[36] Researchers at the University of Southern California estimate that about 1 in 4 families with school-age children in Los Angeles County lack the technology resources for distance learning. This represents approximately 250,000 families whose children are likely to fall behind in educational attainment during the crisis. The gap is even larger for LAUSD families, as 1 in 3 lack high-speed Internet access or a desktop/laptop device. Only about half of the K-12 households in the bottom 20% of the income distribution are equipped for distance learning. This compares to about 90% in the top 20%. Households lacking distance learning resources are clustered in South and East Los Angeles. In these communities, less than half of all families have the technology resources for distance learning. Regardless of income, students of color are less likely to have the technology resources for distance learning. For example, the gap between Hispanic and non-Hispanic students at the same income level is as high as 20 percentage points. The reason is that minority students, regardless of income, tend to live in communities with underfunded schools and less advanced broadband infrastructure.[37]

Although 90% of city and suburban districts have high levels of broadband connectivity, only a quarter of the 112 rural districts in Colorado have high levels of connectivity, and many have low or very low levels, according to an analysis by the Regional Educational Laboratory Central at Centennial-based Marzano Research. 94% of the 28,200 students within Mesa County Valley School district have broadband internet. But across the state on the far eastern plains, only 18% of the 61 students in the Plainview School District have broadband. It’s not just a rural problem. Low-income neighborhoods such as Denver’s Montbello and Green Valley Ranch have spotty coverage and many students are trying to use their phones as hotspots.[38]

Roughly 25,000 Minnesota students didn’t have computers or internet at home by late spring, about 3% of the state’s K-12 students, the Minnesota Department of Education estimated. Low-income students, rural students, and students of color are disproportionately likely to lack reliable internet access, raising concerns that the digital divide will worsen Minnesota’s educational disparities, which are already some of the worst in the nation. The issue isn’t just a rural one — advocates worry low-income urban families will be left behind this fall too. Thousands of Twin Cities residents can’t afford traditional internet packages, which can run to $100 per month.[39]

Across Alaska, about 31% of students don’t have adequate high-speed internet connections at home.[40]

In rural areas of North Carolina, more than 75,000 students have no access to broadband at any price. In urban areas, internet providers have laid the infrastructure, but the average monthly cost of $60 is too steep for some. State public instruction leaders estimate that about 290,000 students live in homes without a subscription to internet service.[41]

One in 5 (more than 110,000 total) children under the age of eighteen in Chicago lack access to broadband.[42]

Between 30% and 50% of K-12 students in West Virginia lack internet access.[43]

Roughly 30% of Washington (DC) public school students lack internet access in their homes.[44]

Atlanta Public Schools, which serves about 55,000 students, estimates that more than half of student families in the district have a connectivity issue of some type.[45]

About 90% of the 51,000 students in the predominantly Black Detroit Public Schools Community District couldn’t participate in online learning initially because they did not have access to internet or technology at home.[46]

About 21,500 kids in Philadelphia do not have an internet subscription.[47]

In the Symmes Valley Local School District in Lawrence County in southern Ohio, Superintendent Darrell Humphreys estimates that less than 15% of his 800 students have “good internet,” capable of streaming video.[48]

4,500 students of the Jefferson County Public School District in Louisville, Kentucky, disappeared from distance-learning programs after the COVID-19 outbreak kept children home. The vast majority of them are poor. Some are homeless. Many lack the high-speed access necessary to “attend” online classes, or take and turn in school assignments.[49]

Thousands of Aiken County residents lacked access to even the most basic internet service as of late 2018, according to a study by the Center for Applied Innovation and Advanced Analytics at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.[50]

According to the Pew Research Center,[51] roughly one-third (35%) of households with children ages 6 to 17 and an annual income below $30,000 a year do not have a high-speed internet connection at home, compared with just 6% of such households earning $75,000 or more a year. These broadband gaps are particularly pronounced in Black and Hispanic households with school-age children – especially those with low income.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey:[52]

  • Approximately 1 in 10 of the poorest children in the U.S. have little or no access to technology for learning. 12.2% of respondents from households earning less than $25,000 a year said a digital device was rarely or never available for a child to use for learning and 9.8% said the same of the internet.
  • Poor children living in poor states are even more likely to be at a disadvantage. Across the U.S., 4.3% of households earning less than $35,000 per year say a device is never available for a child’s learning. For the same income bracket in the five poorest states, this jumps to 6.3%, while in the five richest, it drops to 1.6%.
  • Nine in 10 children of employed caregivers have access to both a device and the internet for learning always, or most of the time. This on demand availability drops around five percentage points for children living in households where caregivers are unemployed.
  • 9.5% of respondents across the U.S. who did not finish high school say there is rarely or never a device available for learning in their home, compared with just 1.2% of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher qualification.
  • On average for the five poorest states, only 34.2% of respondents who did not finish high school say the internet is always available for learning at home. By comparison, the children of 47.4% of respondents from the five richest states who also did not complete high school can get online on demand.
  • Children’s access to online learning is strongly correlated with race. 8.7% of Black respondents say their children rarely or never have access to a device for learning, four percentage points higher than for the full sample including all races. Similarly, 6.7% of Black respondents say there is rarely or never internet access available in their homes, 3.1 percentage points above the full sample.
  • While just 0.1% of white respondents in Los Angeles say a device is rarely or never available for learning at home, 13.2% of Black respondents surveyed in the same city reported rarely or never having access to a device for learning. In Detroit, this form of educational disadvantage affects children in almost 1 in 5 households that identified as Black.

Roughly six-in-ten parents with lower incomes said it’s likely their homebound children would face at least one digital obstacle in doing their schoolwork (Obstacles include: 1. Having to do schoolwork on a cellphone; 2. Having to rely on public Wi-Fi because there is no internet access in the home, or 3. Not being able to complete schoolwork because they don’t have access to a computer at home).[53]

The digital divide impacted many students who currently are connected at home: Philadelphia,[54] Prince George’s County, Maryland,[55] Chattahoochee County, Georgia,[56] and Washington State[57] school districts at first abandoned a shift to online learning because too many students could not get online.

New research suggests that by September 2020, most students will have fallen behind where they would have been if they had stayed in classrooms, with some losing the equivalent of a full school year’s worth of academic gains. Racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps will most likely widen because of disparities in access to computers, home internet connections, and direct instruction from teachers.[58]

Preliminary research suggests students nationwide will return to school in the fall with roughly 70% of learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year, and less than 50% in math, according to projections by NWEA, an Oregon-based nonprofit that provides research to help educators tailor instruction. It expects a greater learning loss for minority and low-income children who have less access to technology, and for families more affected by the economic downturn. School districts didn’t realize the number of students without access to devices and the internet until they surveyed parents. [59]

300,000 to 400,000 K-12 teachers live in households without adequate internet connectivity, roughly 10 percent of all public school teachers, and 100,000 teachers lack adequate home computing devices.[60]

Internet access is so central to children’s education that allowing students to go without it is like sending them to classrooms without textbooks, said Jordana Barton, who studies the digital divide in Texas as a community development adviser for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. So many students being without internet service is “a travesty,” she said.[61]

Some 100,000 fewer high school seniors completed financial aid applications to attend college this year, according to a National College Attainment Network analysis of Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) data through August. The lower enrollment figures are the latest sign of how the economic devastation unleashed by the coronavirus crisis has weighed more heavily on lower-income Americans and minorities, who have suffered higher levels of unemployment and a higher incidence of COVID-19. Students from families with incomes under $75,000 are nearly twice as likely to say they “canceled all plans” to take classes this fall as students from families with incomes over $100,000, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey in late August. When low-income students stop attending school, they rarely return, diminishing their job and wage prospects for the rest of their lives. Enrollment trends so far show especially steep drops among Black students and rural white students. Among the reasons students are citing for not returning to school this fall: frustration or uncertainty about online classes. Students who have dropped out of college this fall overwhelmingly told The Washington Post that it was because of virtual classes. They preferred the supportive environment of attending in-person classes and being able to speak with teachers, fellow students and support staff. They struggled to find a quiet place at home to study and many lacked reliable Internet.[62]

A National Emergency

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped unveil the most glaring equity issues our society faces including the digital divide. But the challenges of the digital divide are not newly-arrived with COVID-19, they have been discussed for decades.  

Without decisive action, the digital divide will not only outlive the pandemic but likely widen. The Commission must start addressing at-home internet access not as a troubling issue, but as a civil rights emergency in need of a comprehensive solution.

True universal service is an issue of infrastructure, affordability and adoption. Internet service providers do not see a profit incentive to build networks in sparsely populated areas. Consolidation among broadband providers has led to higher rates and lower performance in urban and rural areas alike. Getting all Americans connected also requires educating people who might not know where to look for an internet access plan, have the money to pay for it, or understand how to take advantage of it once they have it.

With the evidence we’ve seen over the last few months, it is unfathomable that the FCC can conclude broadband is reaching everyone in the U. S. in a timely fashion.