Data Insights: Broadband Internet - A public good, but not yet for all

Data Insights are deep-dives into City Health Dashboard data, providing new perspectives on a metric, region, population or issue. For more Insights, see our Research and Reports page.

By: Becky Ofrane & Yuruo Li

The internet has become central to our lives: many rely on it for virtual learning and remote work, to pay bills, find doctors, shop, and connect with friends and family. Yet, 30% of U.S. households don’t have access to high-speed broadband internet, and the digital divide mirrors racial and economic disparities seen in other health and economic outcomes. While many people without broadband at home access the internet through their cellphones, such connections don’t allow for full access to web services that facilitate jobs, school, medical care and other aspects of daily life. The COVID-19 pandemic and associated shutdowns underscored the central importance of broadband access and highlighted the impacts of large gaps in broadband access across communities.1 In this Data Insight brief, we describe geographic and social variation in broadband connection at the census-tract level within 766 Dashboard cities, as well as patterns across cities. We also discuss why equitable connection and access to broadband in cities matters. Unlike analyses for individual cities or larger geographic areas like counties or states, City Health Dashboard data illustrate neighborhood-level and city-level trends across the U.S., allowing for a nuanced and actionable understanding of urban connection patterns that reflect demographic and population characteristics.

Gaps in Broadband Connection Across Neighborhoods and Cities

The pandemic has highlighted the challenges associated with gaps in access to broadband – particularly for those already at higher risk for poorer health outcomes, such as racial/ethnic minorities, and those who are older, have lower incomes, or are less educated.2,3,4 Despite more households connecting each year, these gaps continue to persist.

Broadband Graph

Within cities, neighborhoods that are majority Black have the lowest broadband connection rates, with just over half (52%) of residents connected. That’s compared to 59% in majority-Hispanic neighborhoods, 67% in majority-immigrant neighborhoods, 76% in majority-white and 78% connected in majority-Asian neighborhoods. Neighborhoods in which the majority of residents are white or Asian have higher broadband connection rates than the average across all Dashboard neighborhoods. In Pittsburgh, PA, for example, the majority-Black neighborhoods in the city’s northeast corner have broadband connection rates as low as 21%. Meanwhile, just south of there the neighborhoods house primarily Asian and white residents, with connection rates that average 80-90%.

A similar pattern holds across cities as well, not just neighborhoods. Our analysis by City Type illustrates these disparities. Of the 50 cities with the lowest broadband connection rates, 45 are in a city type characterized by large Black and/or Hispanic populations (i.e. Latino-Predominant Enclaves, Regional Hubs, Diverse Ring Cities, and Small Industrial-Legacy Cities).

What are City Types? In 2020, we analyzed small and midsize cities, defined as those with populations 50,000 to 500,000, dividing these 719 cities into 10 categories, or types. Four of these City Types are characterized by large populations of Black and/or Hispanic residents: Latino-Predominant Enclaves, Diverse Ring Cities, Small Industrial-Legacy Cities, and Regional Hubs. See all the City Types and learn more:

Credit Insecurity Index

Credit Insecurity Index by City Type

College CitiesSmall Industrial-Legacy CitiesRegional HubsWorking TownsLatino-Predominant EnclavesDiverse Ring CitiesSmaller Commuter SuburbsBig Metro ExurbsSmall Stable-Size CitiesEmerging CitiesBig CitiesNJHICity Type4.230.356.3Credit Insecurity Index

What does this mean for cities?

While the rural/urban “digital divide” gets a lot of attention, these findings confirm that significant disparities in broadband access exist within cities as well.2 In fact, urban counties contain a higher share of all unconnected Americans (35%) than do counties that are mostly rural (8%) (neither of these include more mixed or suburban counties).5 In urban areas, lack of access to broadband is most frequently due to the cost of subscription, low digital literacy, or lack of in-home computing equipment, as compared to rural areas where the lack of physical infrastructure is often the principal barrier.3 Policymakers can look at how cities like St. Petersburg, FL or New York City are expanding access city-wide and for underserved groups, and consider broadband internet as they do other basic needs and public utilities, like water, sewer and electric. Ensuring access is an important step, as is affordability. Funding high-speed internet in the same way other utilities are subsidized or fully funded in affordable-housing projects is also critical to closing the gap. With local funding already flowing into cities and counties through federal recovery funding packages, now is the time for policymakers to prioritize broadband internet equity and invest in infrastructure and affordability to ensure access for all.Explore demographic maps, broadband data and actionable resources for your city on the City Health Dashboard.

1. Langer Hall S. Digital Redlining. In. NC State University: Institute for Emerging Issues; 2020. 2. Reddick CG, Enriquez R, Harris RJ, Sharma B. Determinants of broadband access and affordability: An analysis of a community survey on the digital divide. Cities. 2020;106:102904. 3. McCloud RF, Okechukwu CA, Sorensen G, Viswanath K. Beyond access: barriers to internet health information seeking among the urban poor. Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association : JAMIA. 2016;23(6):1053-1059. 4. Tomer A, Kneebone E, Shivaram R. Signs of digital distress: Mapping broadband availability and subscription in American neighborhoods. The Brookings Institution;2017 5. Siefer A, Callahan B. Limiting Broadband Investment to "Rural Only" Discriminates Against Black Americans and other Communities of Color In Columbus, OH: National Digital Inclusion Alliance; 2020.