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Data Helps Shine a Light on Broadband Equity in Cities

Some 75 percent of low-income residents in Philadelphia, for example, say that they cannot afford to pay more than $21 a month for a broadband subscription.

Urban areas may have plenty of broadband access, but this doesn’t always translate to having broadband in every home.

In Philadelphia, for example, 14.7 percent of households have no Internet subscription, while 31 percent of households with an annual income below $20,000 are without Internet in the home. And 33 percent of seniors lack broadband connectivity, said Juliet Fink Yates, broadband and digital inclusion manager for Philadelphia.

“What is available is Internet access for almost everybody — for a price. And we know some folks cannot afford it,” said Yates, speaking on a panel to discuss the data sets cities use to better understand the broadband access and affordability issues in their communities. The discussion earlier this month was part of the weekly Broadband Breakfast podcast.

Philadelphia turns to its own surveys, as well as other data sources like the American Community Survey administered by the U.S. Census. The city also uses data from Internet service providers to gain insights into connectivity statistics. One thing all this data makes clear is that low-income populations are vulnerable to being without broadband.

In fact, 75 percent of low-income residents in Philadelphia say paying more than $21 a month for broadband is too expensive, said Yates.

“They’re probably going to forgo it in some way,” said Yates.

Other cities — including Oakland, Calf. — report a similar scenario where broadband infrastructure is not the problem. This, however, doesn’t always lead to widespread connectivity, said Luisa Calumpong, broadband manager for Oakland.

Oakland is well served by fiber-optic infrastructure, said Calumpong, calling to mind the major fiber infrastructure build-outs being planned across the country with funding from the federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, a $42.5 billion initiative to expand broadband infrastructure where it is lacking. Many of these projects will deploy fiber across rural America. Those efforts, say broadband officials in urban areas, will do little to close the connectivity divide in cities.

“Because so much of the digital divide is centered around rural, and we are, once again, getting left behind when it comes to digitally redlining,” said Calumpong, in some of her comments on the panel.

Research by the Vernonberg Group shows only about 7 percent of households in the United States do not have access to basic broadband. About 20 percent of households, however, do not sign up for it, even when broadband is available.

In Philadelphia, the city has launched several initiatives to increase broadband adoption and close the digital divide. PHLConnectED was launched in 2020 and provides free or low-cost support for Internet connection for families with K-12 students. The Digital Literacy Alliance provides seed funding for “innovative digital literacy programs,” said Yates.

Data gathered by surveys and other mechanisms has revealed still more truths about the digital literacy landscape in Philadelphia. Lower-income residents “overwhelmingly” want help in accessing devices, like laptops and tablets, Yates noted. When higher-income residents were asked the same question, they said the city should make investments in broadband affordability programs.

“I think seeing some of that data really helps us guide our decision-making,” she said.

Data related to who has access to broadband Internet, who can afford it and other factors surrounding connectivity is valuable when making the case to elected officials and others charged with funding programs to address digital equity, said Calumpong.

“Our data is really helping to turn the tide when it comes to Oakland leadership. When it comes to our leadership, we want to make sure that they understand where we’re actually seeing the most need,” said Calumpong. “Most of Oakland has a lot of different communications infrastructure within it. What’s important to realize is, who can actually access this infrastructure? Who can actually afford it?”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.