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The Magnitude of the Urban Digital Divide

The web is full of stories of rural areas with no broadband options, and I've spent a lot of time in the last few decades helping rural areas get better broadband. There has not been nearly as much coverage of the huge broadband gap in urban areas. There are a lot of urban homes that can't afford broadband and, in many cases, got bypassed when the telcos and/or cable companies built their networks.

I just saw a statistic that made me realize the magnitude of the urban broadband divide. There have always been many urban homes that don't have broadband, but the issue took on new importance when schools were forced to send students home to work. I read an article in the Democrat and Chronicle, from Rochester, New York that says that 20% of residences in New York City don't have access to home broadband. That's a pretty typical percentage in looking at cities across the country. The statistic that astounded me was that this translates into 750,000 students who don't have a way to tackle schoolwork from home.

That number is mind-boggling. There are more students in NYC without home broadband than the total number of Alaska, Vermont, Wyoming, or Washington DC residents. The article says that the percentage of homes without broadband is in the same 20% range in Rochester and Buffalo. In Syracuse, the percentage of homes without broadband is much higher, at 32%. Nationwide, my firm has studied urban markets where the percentage of homes without broadband ranges from under 10% to as high as 35%.

We know the primary reasons that homes don't have broadband. Surveys and studies over the years in different markets have uncovered the same list of primary reasons homes don't have broadband. Some homes simply aren't interested in broadband and wouldn't use it if it was free. Some homes have low broadband needs and are happy with what they can get from a cellular plan. The biggest single barrier is the price — broadband has grown to be more expensive over time, and many homes have a hard time justifying paying for broadband when they are struggling to pay for food or rent. Some homes can afford broadband but can't also afford to keep a working computer in the home. Some people don't know how to use a computer and need training in basic computer skills. The last reason we see given for not having broadband is a dislike for the way that ISPs and social media misuse personal data.

Around the country, some communities have found solutions to some of these problems. The gigantic challenge is how to apply solutions at the scale of a big city. How can a city provide digital literacy training on computer skills to several hundred thousand people? How do you get hundreds of thousands of computers into homes that need them? And the big dollar question is how to subsidize the cost of a monthly broadband connection to half a million homes.

What's scary is that every other city is similar, with some in even worse shape than New York City. How do you scale up and provide solutions when the universe of people on the wrong side of the digital divide is 10 million to 20 million?

Local communities have tackled some of these issues during the pandemic. I've talked to rural counties that are making sure that every student has a computer at home and that every student has enough broadband to connect to school servers — usually using cellular hot spots. However, local governments are not going to be able to keep paying the fees for home broadband — even in a small community that will add up to a lot of money over time.

We can't shy away from tackling digital divide issues just because the problem is so large and is found in almost every community. Local solutions can make a real difference, particularly in smaller communities — but the magnitude of the digital divide is too immense to easily tackle in larger cities.

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. Visit Page

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