Denise Linn conducted this research as an MPP Candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is currently a Program Analyst at the Smart Chicago Collaborative.
With the rise of coalitions like Next Century Cities and Gig.U and the development of groundbreaking networks in cities like Chattanooga and Kansas City, the buzz surrounding gigabit Internet speeds has swelled in the US. Cities are working closely with companies like Google Fiber or even building out fiber-optic infrastructure themselves. The suggested rewards of these investments include stronger local economies, vibrant tech startup scenes, progress in distance learning, telemedicine, research—and the list goes on.
But when superfast gigabit speeds are available in a city, what does that mean for people beyond tech entrepreneurs and other heavy Internet users? How can cities make sure that technological innovation lifts up the lives of every resident? This all leads to the ultimate question I examined in my recent research: What does the availability of high speed Internet mean for the digital divide?
Unpacking public data can shed some insight on this important issue. The 2013 American Community Survey’s tract and city-level demographic data merged with the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband subscribership data tell us a complex story about what faster speeds do to digital inclusion in metro areas. Though on the surface, both normal cities and gigabit cities do not appear to differ greatly in terms of overall broadband adoption, the data show that there is significant interaction between poverty and gigabit infrastructure. In other words, the presence of gigabit infrastructure has a significant correlation with higher connectivity in lower-income neighborhoods. Poorer cities and poorer census tracts are predicted to fare better when there is gigabit availability.
Why is this? There are a few possible explanations:
- Increased competition: It’s possible that faster speeds spur competition, lower prices, and make at-home broadband subscriptions possible for more people.
- Greater awareness of why the Internet is important: According to Pew, the number one barrier for broadband adoption in the home is lack of awareness or understanding of how the Internet is relevant to everyday activities. It’s possible that the community organizing process required to build gigabit networks engages low-income neighborhoods and heightens awareness of why the Internet is important throughout a city.
- Empowered anchor institutions in low-income areas: Within gigabit cities, anchor institutions—community-based organizations and libraries—deliver critical services to help get people online. In my research I saw interesting outliers—namely, very poor census tracts that were walkable and had easy access to public amenities or programs saw higher rates of Internet connectivity. For example, Hamilton County’s census tract 20 in Chattanooga, TN is both dense and is home to four churches and Howard High School. In 2013, 46% of households in this tract were living in poverty, but over 80% subscribed to broadband service.
The data analysis also points to weaknesses in high-speed Internet cities: broadband adoption in concentrated populations of non-English speakers and communities with low educational attainment. Interestingly, these residents are predicted to be worse off in gigabit cities. This observation points to what many might already suspect—that the relevancy and skill barriers to broadband adoption cannot be solved by faster speeds alone.
Fortunately, cities can understand and take ownership over their own digital divides, whether they are gigabit cities or aspiring gigabit cities. The public sector has a major role to play in digital inclusion. For example, cities can hire a digital inclusion specialist to work full time on the issue or create a grants program for local nonprofits. It’s clear that city governments can set the tone for broadband adoption. You can see my recommended digital inclusion actions for city governments here.
The National League of Cities, in partnership with Next Century Cities and Google Fiber, is conducting a webinar on August 6th to provide practical steps and specific case examples for city governments seeking to heighten their work in this area. Also, cities with great programs or programming ideas will have the opportunity to win a first-ever Digital Inclusion Leadership Award and share their success stories at the NLC conference in November.To learn more about digital inclusion and dive deeper into the subjects covered in this post, see A Data-Driven Digital Inclusion Strategy for Gigabit Cities, or the summary here.