Limiting Broadband Investment to "Rural Only” Discriminates Against Black Americans and other Communities of Color

 

Authors: Angela Siefer and Bill Callahan
June 2020

The federal government’s existing broadband programs target tens of billions of dollars to expand broadband availability for residents of “unserved and underserved” rural areas, while studiously ignoring tens of millions of urban Americans who still lack high-speed internet service.

This policy framework is counterproductive for reducing the nation’s overall digital divide. It is also structurally racist, discriminating against unconnected Black Americans and other communities of color.

We present data below showing that:

  • most Americans who have a chance of benefiting from federal spending on rural broadband deployment subsidies are non-Hispanic white
  • Americans who lack home broadband service for reasons other than network availability are disproportionately people of color.

Conscious or not, the objective effect of current policy is that broadband investment – not just by the FCC and USDA, but by some states as well – is directed mostly to assisting non-Hispanic rural white people to get better internet connections.

Continued federal policies which direct federal “digital divide” spending only to rural infrastructure, and not to broader digital inclusion programs for both urban and rural residents:

  • are inequitable to communities of color, and
  • will help perpetuate the digital exclusion of those communities’ members from employment opportunities, education, healthcare services, financial and commercial access, and social and civic participation.

 

Who gets connection help and who doesn’t

It is now widely acknowledged (thanks in part to the wrenching experiences of school districts trying to institute online learning for their students during COVID-19 lockdowns) that the tens of millions of Americans who still lack high-speed internet connections include large numbers of low income and older adult city residents, as well as residents of unserved rural communities. NDIA has repeatedly pointed to 2018 American Community Survey data showing that the U.S. has more than three times as many urban as rural households living without home broadband of any kind1.

“Not having a home broadband connection” is different from “not having broadband service available”. Most Americans who do not have broadband access in their homes live in places where commercial high-speed internet is available — if they can afford it.

In 2018, according to the ACS, U.S. households with incomes below $35,000 accounted for 28% of all households, but 60% of those without broadband subscriptions. Conversely, households with incomes above $50,000 accounted for 59% of all households, but only 26% of those lacking broadband. The striking connection between household income and lack of home broadband is summed up in this chart of the national ACS data:

Percentage of all households with no home broadband of any type by income group, 2018

This strong link between non-connection and low household income is found in communities of all kinds, rural as well as urban.The obvious implication is that the cost of service is a major barrier, if not the major barrier, to home broadband access.

Nevertheless, other than limited use of federal COVID-19 emergency funds in the last two months to help provide connectivity for unconnected students in urban schools, all federal dollars appropriated to bridge the digital divide among U.S. households since 20132 have been devoted to rural broadband infrastructure deployment.

Eligibility for these dollars is always limited to areas where not a single provider offers fixed home broadband service at a particular combination of upload and download speeds — usually 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream, or “25/3 Mbps”. Since cable television providers routinely offer internet service at much faster speeds than 25/3, and cable networks are ubiquitous in metropolitan and micropolitan markets as well as small towns throughout the U.S., the vast majority of the nation’s population lives in areas that are not eligible for federal deployment subsidies3.

NDIA has long objected to the federal government’s obsessive focus on broadband deployment for “unserved areas”, to the exclusion of all other communities and all other causes of home broadband non-connection, especially the cost barrier. We have argued that this policy framework ignores most of the nation’s unconnected households, and can have only minimal impact on the most serious effects of digital exclusion — in education, the job market, health care, civic and social equity.

 

But what about its impact on communities of color?

In general, non-Hispanic white Americans are more likely than others to have home broadband subscriptions, while Black Americans and other people of color are less likely. From the 2018 American Community Survey4:

Percent of this group with no home broadband:
White alone, not Hispanic or Latino 10.20%
Black or African American alone 17.90%
Total non-white, multi-racial, or Hispanic/Latino 14.00%
Hispanic or Latino origin (of any race) 14.40%

These numbers suggest that a federal strategy for increasing the percentage of Americans with broadband access, and narrowing the digital divide, should be devoting significant attention and resources to overcoming the factors that make Black and Hispanic households, and communities of color in general, less likely to have home broadband.

Unfortunately, the opposite is true.

NDIA has identified the U.S. counties which a) are most rural, and b) have the highest percentages of residents not covered by fixed 25/3 Mbps broadband networks — i.e. the places most likely to qualify for the government’s existing broadband infrastructure spending. We then compared the American Community Survey’s data for people with no home broadband in these counties to the data for all U.S. cities with 200,000 residents or more, and for the least rural counties, i.e. those with fewer than 5% or their residents classified as rural.

Our analysis confirms that there are millions more people living in households with no broadband in big cities and urban counties than there are in the most rural and underserved counties. This isn’t surprising, since urban populations are much bigger. But we also confirmed that:

  • In the rural counties which are most likely to qualify for federal broadband funding, people living in households with no broadband — the intended beneficiaries of the government’s ostensible efforts to “close the digital divide” — are mostly “white alone” and non-Hispanic.
  • In contrast, the majority of people living in households with no broadband in the nation’s largest cities and least rural counties — the places least likely to qualify for broadband infrastructure funding or any other federal digital inclusion assistance — are non-white, multiracial and/or Hispanic or Latino.

 

The data

The Federal Communications Commission’s annual Broadband Deployment Report5 includes (as “Appendix 56”) a chart of all U.S. counties with their 2018 rural and urban populations, along with FCC-estimated percentages of rural and urban residents in each county who have the opportunity to connect to 25/3 Mbps fixed terrestrial broadband and/or 5/1 Mbps mobile internet service. (“Terrestrial” means “not satellite”.)

The U.S. Census American Community Survey (2014-2018 5-Year Estimates) provides data for all U.S. cities (“places”) and counties on household computer ownership and home broadband internet subscriptions, broken out by (among other demographic factors) race and Hispanic or Latino identity. In this data the ACS includes any type of “computer” including dial-up modem.

NDIA has combined the data from these two sources7 to create four datasets:

  • Most rural counties. This dataset includes the 1,083 counties whose populations were at least 75% rural in 2018, according to FCC Appendix 5. These are effectively the most rural third of the nation’s 3,142 counties.
  • Most underserved counties at 25/3. This dataset includes 712 counties where more than a third (33.4% or more) of the residents had no access to 25/3 Mbps broadband service in 2018, according to FCC Appendix 5.
  • Least rural counties. This dataset includes 143 counties whose populations were no more than 5% rural in 2018, according to FCC Appendix 5. In other words, their residents were between 95% and 100% urban.
  • 111 biggest cities. This dataset includes all U.S. cities with populations of 200,000 or more according to the 2014-2018 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.

The “most rural” and “most underserved” datasets, which respectively include about 34% and 23% of all counties, include most if not all of the areas where residential broadband deployment projects might meet the “unserved area” test for federal assistance, from either FCC or USDA programs. They also include most of the areas where residents might find 25/3 Mbps home broadband service completely unavailable.

The “least rural” and “biggest cities” datasets represent the opposite end of the broadband availability spectrum. These are counties and cities where high-speed broadband availability is likely to be ubiquitous, “unserved areas” eligible for federal broadband infrastructure funding would be very hard to find, and residents who don’t have home broadband access must have a reason other than availability (such as inability to pay for it).

For each of these datasets, we computed the following:

  • The total number of non-institutionalized individuals (“population in households”) reported by the ACS to be living in households that lacked a computer and broadband internet subscription.
  • The percentage of the total population in households reported by the ACS to be living in households that lacked a computer and broadband internet subscription.
  • The numbers and percentages of those unconnected households who were:
    • White alone, not Hispanic or Latino
    • Black or African-American alone
    • Non-white, multiracial, or Hispanic/Latino or any race (“people of color”)
 
  MOST RURAL: All US counties whose populations are 75% or more rural** MOST UNDERSERVED AT 25/3: All US counties where more than 33.3% of population have no 25/3 Mbps broadband available** LEAST RURAL: All US counties whose populations are less than 5% rural** BIGGEST CITIES: All US cities with populations of 200,000 or more*
Number of Census geographies 1,083 712 143 111
Total population in households* 14,665,486 10,197,620 127,423,507 64,561,292
Population in households with no broadband* 3,829,802 2,984,122 17,710,172 11,084,211
No-broadband percentage of total population in households 26.1% 29.3% 13.5% 17.2%
         
Share of total national population in households with no broadband (total = 49,770,274* ) 7.7% 6.0% 35.6% 22.3%
         
Numbers and percentages of those in households with no broadband who are:
          White alone, not Hispanic or Latino* 2,906,603 1,876,672 5,765,802 2,731,299
                 Percent of population in households with no broadband 75.9% 62.9% 32.6% 24.6%
          Black alone* 517,346 588,996 4,895,782 3,505,916
                 Percent of population in households with no broadband 13.5% 19.7% 27.6% 31.6%
          Total non-White, multi-racial, and/or Hispanic/Latino* 923,199 1,107,450 11,944,370 8,352,912
                 Percent of population in households with no broadband 24.1% 37.1% 67.4% 75.4%
         

* 2014-2018 American Community 5-Year Estimates, Tables B28008, B28009B, and B28009H. “No broadband” refers to the population in households with no computers of any kind, or with computers but no home broadband subscriptions of any type including cellular data plans.

** Federal Communications Commission 2020 Broadband Deployment Report, Appendix 5

 

 

What do we learn from the data?

  • The most urban cities and counties in the U.S. have many more residents who lack home broadband service than do the most rural counties. All of the nation’s counties whose populations are at least 75% rural, taken together, accounted for less than 8% of Americans living in households with no broadband. In contrast, the most urban counties — those with fewer than 5% rural residents — accounted for more than 35%. Unconnected residents in the nation’s largest cities and urban counties far outnumber unconnected residents in the most rural and “unserved” counties, regardless of race. But the urban/rural disparity for people of color and for Black Americans is far greater than for non-Hispanic whites. For example, there were slightly fewer white residents without broadband in our dataset from the 111 biggest cities than there were in the most rural counties (2.7 million vs. 2.9 million); but there were seven times as many unconnected Black residents in the cities, and almost nine times as many unconnected people of color.
  • 76% of residents living without broadband connections in the most rural third of U.S. counties were white and non-Hispanic. Only 13% were Black, and less than 25% were people of color (defined as nonwhite, multiracial or Hispanic/Latino8). Counties where 25/3 Mbps broadband internet service is unavailable to at least one-third of residents — i.e. those with significant “unserved areas” that would be eligible for existing federal broadband subsidies — accounted for only 6% of the U.S. population in households with no broadband service. 63% of the unconnected households in those counties were white and non-Hispanic, while only 20% were Black.
  • In contrast, substantial majorities of the residents in households without broadband in our urban datasets were people of color. People of color accounted for 75% of the unconnected in 95%+ urban counties, and 67% of the unconnected in cities with 200,000+ residents. Black residents alone accounted for 28% of the unconnected in 95%+ urban counties, and 32% of the unconnected in cities with 200,000+ residents.

The bottom line: A federal broadband policy which provides funding only for broadband infrastructure deployment, and only to areas which have no existing 25/3 Mbps residential broadband service — with no accompanying investment in affordable access and other measures to help urban as well as rural residents get connected — discriminates in a big way against Black Americans and other communities of color.

This structurally racist policy needs to end.

Yes, America needs continued investment in rural broadband deployment, where existing networks don’t provide high-speed access for rural and tribal communities.

But America also needs funding for digital inclusion initiatives — affordable access strategies, affordable devices, community-based training and support — to overcome the digital divide in all communities, urban and rural alike.

 


  1. See NDIA infographic at https://www.digitalinclusion.org/awareness/.
  2.  2013 was the last year of contractual expenditures for the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, a part of the Obama Administration’s economic stimulus program which provided several hundred million dollars in short-term funding for community broadband training and adoption efforts and community computer centers.
  3.  The FCC “Form 477” data, which is supposed to establish whether each U.S. Census block is “unserved” by internet at the benchmark speeds, and therefore eligible or ineligible for network deployment subsidies, is notoriously unreliable. The FCC is under pressure from all sides to reform this system, and significant improvement is expected. But no improvement of this kind will significantly affect the issue addressed by this white paper.
  4.  2018 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Table S2802
  5.  https://www.fcc.gov/reports-research/reports/broadband-progress-reports/2020-broadband-deployment-report
  6.  FCC, 2020 Broadband Deployment Report, Appendix 5: Deployment of Fixed Terrestrial 25/3 Mbps and Mobile LTE With a Minimum Advertised Speed of 5/1 Mbps Services By County and County Equivalent – Segmented by Urban and Rural Areas (As of December 31, 2018)
  7.  We included data from the fifty states and the District of Columbia, but not Puerto Rico, in this analysis. During 2018, Puerto Rico’s internet access and infrastructure remained heavily disrupted by Hurricane Maria damage.
  8.  The majority of Black rural-county residents living without broadband were in just seven states — Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, and North and South Carolina.