Four key findings emerge from our analysis of broadband access in US cities. First, in 2019, more than a quarter of households in the 766 largest US cities did not have broadband access at home. Second, households in low-income neighborhoods were less likely to have broadband access compared to households in high-income neighborhoods. Third, neighborhoods composed predominantly of minority households consistently had lower broadband access compared to White and no majority neighborhoods, regardless of income level. Fourth, although broadband access increased only modestly between 2017 and 2019, the increase was larger in low-income and minority predominant neighborhoods and had the effect of modestly reducing racial/ethnic and income disparities.
Despite progress made over the three-year period, our data indicate that substantial disparities persist in urban broadband access. Across the 766 cities analyzed, more households from low-income neighborhoods lacked access to high-speed internet than did households from higher income neighborhoods. Previous literature generally ascribes lack of broadband access to an absence of broadband infrastructure, unwillingness on the part of broadband providers to invest in such infrastructure, and the cost burden to individuals of paying for broadband service 14. However, it is unlikely that lack of broadband access in cities is driven by infrastructure-at least 30% of household have broadband access in most urban neighborhoods (see the lower quartile in Exhibit 4), suggesting broadband infrastructure is available in these neighborhoods. Instead, reducing the cost of broadband access, potentially through providing direct subsidies for broadband subscriptions and computer devices, could reduce disparities in broadband access.
However, our findings suggest that income alone cannot explain comparatively lower broadband connection rates in Black, Hispanic, and AI or NH&PI majority neighborhoods across income strata. If 70% of the households in a neighborhood were connected to broadband internet, this neighborhood would be more connected than 75% of Black and Hispanic majority neighborhoods, but less connected than 75% of AA and White majority neighborhoods. This suggests significant broadband disparities by racial and ethnic groups. Even among neighborhoods with high median household income, broadband access in White majority neighborhoods was 12% higher than in Black majority neighborhoods and 7.5% higher than in Hispanic majority neighborhoods. One explanation is differences in disposable income. Even within the same income quartile, Black and Hispanic households tend to have less family wealth such as savings and house ownership than White or Asian households, which may make Black and Hispanic households more sensitive to the cost of broadband subscription.15 In addition to affordability, previous studies also suggested that a number of factors, including education disparities, languages barriers, digital literacy, and home computer ownership in childhood, may contribute to the low broadband access among racial and ethnic minority groups regardless of their income stratum.16 In many cities, the disparity in broadband also likely reflects the legacy of structurally racist disinvestment and differential development practices. For example, neighborhoods redlined more than a half century ago demonstrate lower broadband access today,17 a reflection of the greater systematic social disparity in US cities. Investing in “soft” infrastructure, such as education and services, in urban settings with fewer non-white residents, may help to reduce racial/ethnic disparities in broadband access in urban areas, where broadband infrastructure is widely available.
We additionally observed a notable paradox in broadband access in AA neighborhoods. Median broadband access in low-income AA neighborhoods was considerably lower than in low-income White majority neighborhoods. However the majority of AA neighborhoods were in the high-income group, which had higher broadband access overall, thus driving up median broadband access rates for all AA neighborhoods and masking lower access specifically in the low-income stratum. This paradox further emphasizes the need for stratification in conducting social health research, especially among racial/ethnic groups that encompass a wide range of ethnic subgroups, such as AA and Hispanic populations.18