Closing the “Digital “Divide” – Internet Connectivity Now Vital For Many Households

by Kelley Cullen, PhD

The coronavirus pandemic has driven many commercial and educational activities online, making internet connectivity vital for many households. Many workers have transitioned to telecommuting while students have been asked to engage in remote or distance learning. Quite commonly, households see multiple electronic devices running simultaneously for school, work and even everyday tasks such as grocery shopping. Increasingly, the “digital divide” – the gap between those who do or do not have access to technology – can hinder people’s ability to participate in the modern economy.

Using data from the American Community Survey (ACS), US Census workers have questioned Americans about their computer use (since 1984) and Internet use (since 1997). Internet use varies depending on the device used to access it (desktop computer, cellphone, and tablet) and by the type of internet connection (cable modem, mobile broadband, DSL connection).

The Trends includes two useful indicators to help gauge the size of the digital divide in a county. Indicator 0.3.5 reports both the total number and percentage of all households in the county that have internet access in their own home. This is strictly a measure of whether members of the household can go online.

In 2013, while nearly two-thirds of all households in Chelan & Douglas counties had internet access from home, the combined counties lagged both the US (73.4%) and Washington state (79%). Between 2013 & 2014, the combined counties of Chelan & Douglas saw a rapid increase in home connectivity and the upward trend has continued so that today, 86.4% of all households can access the internet from home. This is essentially the same as the national average (86.6%), but still falls slightly short of Washington state (91.4%) overall. Nearby counties also have a slightly higher rate of 88%.

Data is reported for the cities of Wenatchee and East Wenatchee as well as for Chelan and Douglas counties separately through the ACS. However, because the data are collected over different intervals, caution should be used in directly comparing results between the cities and the counties. Douglas County has the slowest growth in share of households with internet from 2016 to 2019 from 78% to 80% of households with internet subscriptions. In contrast, Wenatchee had the greatest growth in the same period increasing from 75.8% to 81.2%. This is not statistically different from East Wenatchee which in 2019 had 79% of households with internet access. Wenatchee’s strong increase likely helped Chelan County more broadly improve from 84% to 86%.

Not only is adequate access to internet itself important, the type of connection that can service multiple connected devices consistently is paramount. Of the options for connection type, broadband provides the wider bandwidth data transmission that many households and businesses need.

According to Indicator 0.3.6 that measures the percentage of households with an internet connection by type, the good news is that in 2019, Chelan & Douglas counties have the same share of broadband access as the US (81.5%) and only slightly trail the Washington state average (83.5%). Interestingly, the percentage of households in Chelan & Douglas counties that have broadband access at home has fallen by 3% since 2016. Part of the reason for this is that cellular access is up by 2% and other types of connections such as satellite has also increased. With advances in technology such as mobile hotspots, combined with the affordability of cellphones, it is not surprising that many people might increasingly be using their phones to provide internet access from home. Compared to neighboring counties, Chelan & Douglas counties are well under their 14-18% cellular-only connectivity.

Looking at the cities and counties separately, between 2017 and 2019, Wenatchee saw a decrease in share of households with broadband from 84.6% to 82%.  Chelan County mirrored that decrease countywide falling from 84% to 81%. In Douglas County, broadband usage increased slightly from 81 to 82% over the three years, matching a similar increase in East Wenatchee of 87% to 88%. In terms of cellular only internet access, Wenatchee saw the greatest growth from 7% to 10%, with a corresponding increase in Chelan County from 8.7% to 13.8%. East Wenatchee & Douglas Count showed flat trends in cellular internet access.

So, what does this mean for how well Chelan & Douglas counties are closing the digital divide? First, if 86% of households have internet access at home, this implies that nearly one in every seven households in Chelan & Douglas counties still lacked internet connectivity at home, at least as of 2019. Keep in mind that Chromebook and mobile hotspot distribution through the public schools might show a significant increase in home access for 2020, especially for lower income households with school-age children that might not have been able to afford internet connectivity previously. However, this policy response to the challenges of Covid-19 could be short-lived as students ultimately return to the physical classroom. Likewise, this does not improve access to internet for households without school age children.

Additionally, with nearly 30% of all households in the county lacking broadband, what might this mean for the local economy? In terms of commerce, perhaps not much. Thanks to smartphones, many consumers can engage with businesses directly through apps on their phones. In fact, millennials and gen Z customers might even prefer this form of exchange. 

For education, however, the smaller screens of most cellphones are often insufficient for full engagement with teachers and educational resources. Students often need to use keyboards to complete and submit homework assignments. And, whereas high school or college-students may be able to connect their personal laptops to their cellphone, households with younger children might find it problematic to have several laptops streaming while connected to a single cellphone’s hotspot.

So what can be done to improve broadband access to households throughout the counties, and thereby shrink the digital divide? On the one hand, the challenges of rural communities often make adding the infrastructure necessary for broadband prohibitively expensive for private companies. Some form of government subsidy would be needed to improve widespread broadband access for more rural parts of the counties.

Speaking of cost, many households, with incomes in the lower quintile for example, might find that they are unable to afford the monthly, recurring expenses of both cellphone service and broadband. But until local, state and federal government budgets stabilize from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, subsidization of greater broadband penetration may be on hold. This would leave households to look for other internet connection types or to simply go without in the interim.