In October, LightBox hosted a webinar to discuss the lack of reliable broadband access across the country and how COVID-19 highlighted this urgent issue. Titled Technology Innovations Highlight the Urgent Challenge of Community Broadband Access in a COVID World, the webinar featured Mac McComas, Senior Program Manager 21st Century Cities Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, among its panel of speakers to talk about important issues surrounding the digital divide. Ensuring broadband access for underserved communities is important to Lightbox, and we are focused on providing solutions to empower communities to have the tools they need to address broadband challenges.
Below, Mac expands on this topic, providing unique insights and research around the digital divide in urban areas.
High-speed internet, and the infrastructure that provides access to it, is one of the most modern forms of infrastructure that urban residents benefit from. Modern cities provide urban residents and firms with access to other costly infrastructure such as sewer systems, water treatment facilities, electricity, roads, and ports. These systems, including broadband, improve the economy by facilitating trade and movement of people while raising quality of life.
Yet, while access to broadband and the internet are often seen as an issue in rural communities, it is also an issue in many urban neighborhoods.
Why older cities are more likely to lack access to reliable internet
Older, post-industrial cities like Baltimore (60% broadband access) and Detroit (52% broadband access) face the challenge of old, durable infrastructure that newer cities like San Jose (82% broadband access) and Las Vegas (70% broadband access) do not. Part of the reason for the early success of Baltimore and Detroit was their position as port cities on large bodies of water that facilitated maritime trade in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the early and mid-20th century, Baltimore was an attractive place to buy a home due to its stock of small, affordable row homes packed tightly together. Fast forward to the 21st century and primacy in maritime trade is significantly less important and people prefer homes with larger footprints and yards. Yet these cities were partly configured during these older eras and their capital stock is durable and costly to replace. Deploying broadband infrastructure means digging up streets to lay conduit, which might reveal other structural issues or necessary upgrades that are made easier in “newer” cities.
Baltimore and Detroit also suffer from higher rates of poverty and racial and economic segregation than Las Vegas and San Jose. A Pew Research Center survey in 2019 found that 50% of households without broadband said that high cost was a reason why they did not have it while 21% cited it as the most important reason. Families that are struggling to pay rent and put food on the table might not be able to afford broadband. After sign-up discounts disappear, broadband can cost over $100 a month in Baltimore. While low-cost programs like Comcast’s Internet Essentials provides broadband access for $10 a month, many low-income families are unaware of the program or updates to eligibility requirements that now allow them access. In some cases, these basic broadband services (25 Mbps download and 5 Mbps upload) are not enough bandwidth for large families with children who need to be online for school while a parent works from home.
Neighborhood segregation plays a large role in the digital divide as capital investments are often directed toward wealthier, whiter neighborhoods that have better access to the internet. One study in Baltimore found that the city’s capital budget allocated almost twice the amount of funding for neighborhoods that were over 75% white compared to those that were over 75% Black, with similar findings for poor neighborhoods. This also manifests in peer groups. If broadband is not the norm in your neighborhood, you may be wary of paying for it, given unfamiliarity and lack of access to peers who can help you with technical issues. Demystifying internet technology and infrastructure is key, beyond general tech skills training.
How an increase in broadband access helps communities
Improving access to broadband can help households with education, healthcare, transportation, purchasing goods and services, searching for and applying for jobs, entrepreneurial opportunities, banking and government services, and the opportunity for entertainment. More importantly, access to the internet and devices empowers residents to come up with their own solutions to problems in their communities, serving as another tool to address inequities.
Existing data on broadband access in cities made available by Census Bureau surveys is good, but data that are more granular and improved mapping can help shed light on the aforementioned issues. Citizens and organizations empowered with better data can be effective advocates for the needs of their community. Budget constrained cities can make better decisions on where to target capital investments and programs by identifying areas where the need is greatest.
My forthcoming book, Unlocking the Potential of Post-Industrial Cities, co-authored with Matthew E. Kahn, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Economics and Business and Director of the 21st Century Cities Initiative, highlights how these issues of old infrastructure come up against the need for investment in new capital stock. The digital divide is one of many examples of this in old post-industrial cities, and improved data, mapping, and research are part of the solution.
LightBox is uniquely positioned to help state governments update their broadband coverage maps and expand coverage to underserved areas. Our data solutions team of seasoned experts can provide fast, accurate service to help states and telecommunications companies bring underserved residents online. Contact us to find out more. And to watch the full webinar, click here.