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.

Broadband and the Census

The US government is gearing up to begin the 2020 census which will be administered starting next April 20. For the first time the Census is going to rely heavily on people answering the census questions online. Live census takers will then follow-up with those that don’t submit the online response.

This seems like an odd decision since there are still a lot of people who don’t have home broadband. This seems like a poorly conceived idea by those of us who understand the FCC’s dirty little secret – the FCC has no idea how many homes don’t have broadband.

As a country, we care a lot about an accurate Census. The census data is used for multiple government purposes. The 10-year Census is used to redraw both federal and state political boundaries every ten years. The Census is used to determine the number of US House Representatives allowed for each state. The government uses the Census to allocate the funding for numerous federal programs that allocate funding by population. If an area of the country is undercounted they lose both political representation and federal funding for a wide variety of purposes.

This all means that there is a significant downside risk for any part of the country that is undercounted in the Census. The Census is hiring 175,000 fewer door-to-door people nationwide to follow-up on those that don’t answer the first wave of the Census, and one has to wonder if they are going to be equipped when huge portions of rural America doesn’t respond to the online census request.

As I said earlier, we have no idea as a country how many people don’t have home broadband. According to the FCC maps, there are still 21 million people in rural America with no access to broadband. However, everybody understands that this number is understated due to the idiotic rules used to count broadband customers by the FCC. We use a self-reporting system where ISPs tell the FCC about their broadband coverage. We know that many ISPs have overstated the speeds they can deliver along with the areas of their coverage. That’s bad enough, but the FCC then compounds this error by assuming that if a census block has at least one broadband customer that the whole block has broadband. A census block is normally 600-800 homes and anybody living in rural America understands how large such an area can cover.

We have other people counting broadband that paint a very different picture than the FCC. The one with the widest reach and most credibility is Microsoft. They are able to measure the speed of downloaded software upgrades – a method that tells the real broadband situation at a home. Microsoft estimates that 162 million people in the US don’t have access to broadband that meets the FCC’s definition of 25/3 Mbps. But Microsoft has no way of counting homes with no broadband.

This is not just a rural problem. It’s always been suspected that there are millions of homes in older urban areas that don’t have access to broadband. There are apartments and little pockets of neighborhoods everywhere that were bypassed by the cable companies when they built their networks in the 1970s and 80s. Folks who study this issue estimate that there could be as many as 10 million people in urban areas without broadband access.

Even more importantly, there are millions of people that elect not to buy broadband or who access the Internet only using a cellphone. There are still homes everywhere that either can’t afford the Internet or who refuse to go online. Even among houses with broadband there are going to be many who don’t have good enough computer skills or the language skills to find and complete the Census questions online.

My guess is that the Census Bureau is going to be totally overwhelmed by the levels of non-response of households that don’t take the Census online. There will be huge geographic rural areas where few people respond online. There will be people everywhere who don’t have access to broadband or are unable to navigate the online questionnaire.

In the past the US Census Bureau believes they got a pretty high response. They got a decently high response from households that completed the paper census forms and had an army of census takers that tracked down houses that didn’t respond. If the completion ratio for the Census slips even a few percent, then areas without good broadband are likely to be disadvantaged in the many ways that Census data affects states.

The Census was moved online to save money. I think that the decision to go online is probably ten years premature and that the Census Bureau is probably totally unprepared for what’s going to happen next April. I hope I’m wrong.