The Census Bureau and the Digital Divide

John Horrigan recently wrote an interesting article in The Daily Yonder that cited the results of a survey done by the Census Bureau. The agency conducts an annual survey called the American Community Survey (ACS) of 3.5 million households. In recent years the survey has included a few questions about broadband. The most recent ACS survey included questions about the digital divide. The results are at first glance a bit surprising.

The survey shows that more than 20.4 million homes have no broadband subscription at home. The survey shows that 5.1 million homes with no broadband connection are rural and 15.3 million homes are non-rural. Anybody who tracks rural broadband instantly doesn’t think those numbers can be right. However, the Census Bureau uses its own definition of rural which is different than the way most of the world thinks or rural versus urban.

According to the Census Bureau definition, rural is everything that is not urban. The Census bureau looks at the country by regional clusters of population. They count two kinds of urban areas – urbanized areas (UAs) are clusters with 50,000 or more people and urban clusters (UCs) which have between 2,500 and 50,000 people. Most of us would consider many of the UCs to be rural because within this category are a lot of rural county seats and the immediately surrounding areas. The Census statistics count a lot of people who live just outside of towns as urban when our industry considers homes past the last cable company connection as rural.

Horrigan interpets the results of the Census Bureau survey to mean that affordability is a bigger reason today than connectivity for why people don’t have broadband. He reached that conclusion by considering a recent Pew Research poll on the same topic that shows that more homes cite reasons other than availability as reasons they don’t have broadband.

The Pew Research survey asked households why they don’t have broadband. Respondents could supply more than one response.

  • 50% claimed that price was a major factor and 21% cited this as the primary reason.
  • 45% said that their smartphone could do everything they need.
  • 43% said they had good access to the Internet outside the home.
  • 31% said they couldn’t afford a computer.
  • Only 22% said that they couldn’t order a broadband connection, and only 7% said that was the primary reason they didn’t have broadband.

The Census Bureau also correlated their results with household income, and it’s not surprising that low-income households have a much lower broadband connection rate. The Census Bureau survey showed that only 59% of homes that make less than $20,000 per year have broadband. The subscription rate for all households making more than $20,000 is 88%.

Interestingly, the FCC doesn’t ask why people don’t have broadband. They interpret their mission to measure broadband availability and they count homes with or without broadband connections. This raises a few questions. What exactly is the FCC’s mandate from Congress – to get America has connection to reach the Internet or to make sure that America makes those broadband connections? I read the FCC’s mandate from Congress to have some of both goals. If availability is not the primary reason why homes don’t have broadband, the FCC might get more bang from their buck by putting some effort into digital inclusion programs. According to the Horrigan article, there are now more homes that can’t afford broadband than homes that don’t have a connectivity option.

This implies the need for a much-improved Lifeline Fund. The current Lifeline program is likely not making a big difference in digital inclusion. It provides a small monthly subsidy of $9.25 per month for qualifying households to save money on either their telephone bill or their broadband bill. It’s becoming increasingly hard to qualify for Lifeline because the big telcos like AT&T are backing out of the program. Some cable companies provide low-cost cable lines to homes with school students, but to nobody else – and cable companies don’t operate outside of towns.

In addition to a more effective Lifeline program, digital inclusion also means getting computers into homes that can’t afford them. I’ve written before about the non-profit group E2D that provides computers to school students in Charlotte, NC. Perhaps some of the Universal Service Fund could be used to assist effective groups like E2D to get more computers to more households.

My firm CCG conducts surveys and we’ve seen anecdotal evidence in a few recent surveys in poor rural counties that a lot of homes don’t buy the slow DSL option available to them because of price. These homes tell us that price mattered more than connectivity. I don’t have any easy answer for the best way to promote digital inclusion. But there are folks in the country who have made amazing progress in this area and perhaps the FCC should consider giving such groups some help. At a minimum, the FCC needs to recognize that now that most homes have a broadband connection that price is a major barrier for the majority of those who are not connected.

One thought on “The Census Bureau and the Digital Divide

  1. So, I think we can leave behind the notion that broadband will lift the fortunes of all it touches. Otherwise, these people who can’t easily afford it, many of whom have cell phones or access to broadband elsewhere, would be finding some credit arrangements to launch new businesses.

    And, I think we can dismiss the notion that Ajit Pai knows or cares anything about competition. “Verizon shill” is about the best explanation I can think of for his approach.

    What we seem to have is clusters of poor people who are unprofitable to serve, given the cash they have to spend. Trends in automation will undoubtedly only make this worse.

    Without some significant technological shift (c’mon Elon!), the only answer is either some big subsidy that does not go to incumbents (figure out how to do that in a laissez-faire context!), make utilities out of isps, or do an RFD and create a government isp of last resort.

    Industries, particularly capital-intensive industries, don’t magically decide to serve unprofitable customers because they are part of a market. We’d still have pay phones if that were the case…

    Doug brings up the very good point that, given the utter lack of magic, what we really have is a choice for what kind of society we want to be.

    Like

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