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Sizable Gap Exists in Chicagoans' Access to Broadband, Study Shows

While the majority of people without broadband home access still connect to the Internet with their smartphones or public computers, their use is limited.

(TNS) -- Widespread use of smartphones has made it easier for Chicagoans to hop onto the Internet, but research shows there still exists a sizable gap in the number of people with access to broadband at home — particularly on the South and West sides.

In 2013, broadband adoption on home computers and devices was lowest in neighborhoods such as West Garfield Park, Burnside and Brighton Park, as well as other African-American and Latino neighborhoods where poverty rates are high, according to a study released Friday by the MacArthur Foundation and Partnership for a Connected Illinois.

While the majority of people without broadband home access still connect to the Internet with their smartphones or public computers, research shows they're limited in their Internet use and are far less likely to use online courses, visit government websites, look up political information or access online job applications.

"People who hadn't been online before are now exploring the Internet on their phones, and that's exciting. But there are limits," said Karen Mossberger, an Arizona State University professor and lead researcher on the study. "Reading intensive things, filling out forms — even today with the development of mobile, it's difficult to do those types of things on your phone."

Parents who need to help their children with homework and lack broadband, for example, are limited to their public library's hours and the basic Internet searches they're able to perform on their phones, said Mossberger, who formerly headed the Department of Public Administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The study is based on English and Spanish telephone surveys conducted between 2008 and 2013 of about 8,400 Chicago residents from 77 community areas.

Chicago is the only major city to have Internet usage data available on a neighborhood level, Mossberger said. The specified data could help city leaders and community groups make more informed policy decisions on how to increase broadband access.

"In a diverse city like Chicago, just saying what the Internet access is on a city level really masks the differences between neighborhoods and demographics," Mossberger said.

Between 2008 and 2013, several neighborhoods on the South and West sides have made strides in bridging the "digital divide," as those areas experienced higher rates of growth in home broadband and Internet usage away from home, such as at libraries or community centers.

In 2013, however, disadvantaged neighborhoods were still far behind the rest of the city in regard to home broadband access. In West Garfield Park, Burnside and Brighton Park, for instance, fewer than 45 percent of homes had broadband access, compared with the city's average of 70 percent, according to the study.

The reason for the continued divide could be affordability, Mossberger said. Those primarily accessing the Internet through their phones don't have to buy a separate device, such as a laptop, or worry about paying an additional bill for broadband Internet. But mobile Internet usage may be subject to a data cap, particularly with cheaper plans, further limiting people's usage.

The greatest users of library computers also tend to be low-income African-Americans and Latinos, further suggesting affordability is a barrier to home broadband access, Mossberger said. In 2013, Latinos were the least likely demographic group to go online via broadband at home or public computers, according to the study. Just 55 percent of Latinos adopted broadband compared with 66 percent of blacks, 81 percent of whites and 87 percent of Asians.

©2016 the Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.