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Pinpointing Urban Broadband Gaps

The City of Chicago asked some researchers at the University of Chicago for help to identify the neighborhoods and the number of households that are not connected to broadband. It’s been well known that large numbers of people in cities don’t have broadband, but there have been no easy ways to pinpoint where solutions are needed. The researchers, along with folks from the University of California at Santa Barbara, tackled the challenge and reported on their findings in this report.

The report highlights something that’s obvious but hard to do—you can’t tackle the digital divide until you can identify where help is needed. Cities often concentrate efforts on public housing because they understand the needs there, but there is no easy way to identify other blocks and neighborhoods that could use help solving the digital divide.

The research began with the U.S. Census ACS survey data and also the FCC Form 477 data—the researchers fully understood the weaknesses of both sets of data. They layered on Ookla speed test data in an attempt to identify areas that have broadband that underperforms other parts of the City. Finally, they layered in the results of earlier work where millions of online queries were made to ISPs asking for the availability of broadband at specific addresses.

They found the following, which is not a surprising list for anybody working with urban broadband:

  • Broadband adoption varied widely across Chicago with broadband penetration rates in neighborhoods varying from 58% to 93%.
  • Neighborhoods with the lowest broadband adoption rates correlated well with the majority-Black neighborhoods that reflect the City’s historical patterns of residential segregation.
  • Adoption rates also correlated well with other factors such as the percentage of the Hispanic population, low incomes, low education attainment, and a higher percentage of elderly residents.
  • 90% of Census blocks have at least one ISP that offers high-speed broadband. There was a big variance in the number of high-speed broadband options. 50.6% of Census blocks have only one high-speed option.

Some of the findings are not surprising. There have been numerous studies that have correlated race, income, level of education, and age to broadband adoption. The big difference with this study is that the researchers were able to specifically identify the parts of the City with the lowest broadband adoption and could pinpoint which of these factors likely played a role for each pocket.

Some of the findings are unexpected. If 90% of Census blocks have at least one high-speed ISP, then 10% of the Census blocks in Chicago do not have a high-speed broadband option. We’ve been spending a lot of money to make sure that rural areas get good broadband, but this finding means there may be far more people in cities without a good broadband option than rural folks. This should lead to interesting discussions on using some of the BEAD grant funding.

The fact that 50% of Census blocks in Chicago have only one high-speed ISP means that half of the City is served by an ISP that holds a virtual broadband monopoly. In a large City that has multiple ISPs, this is probably a surprising finding.

One of the most important questions I have is how this research can be duplicated in other cities. If cities want to get the best results from digital literacy plans, they need to know where to concentrate resources. If cities want to push ISPs to make sure that everybody has at least one high-speed broadband option, they need to pinpoint those areas that don’t have fast broadband.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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