There’s a renewed effort to get more people online and bring high speed internet to more families across the country.
The push comes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting inequities in internet access as families switched to remote working and learning. The Biden administration announced a federal program that could make tens of millions of households eligible for free internet.
Twenty companies have agreed to provide discounted service to people with low incomes. The deal, combined with an already existing federal subsidy, would make service free for those who qualify. Locally, researchers at the University of Chicago are analyzing internet access throughout the city in hopes of determining the best way to use $65 billion in federal funds to expand broadband access.
The Internet Equity Initiative is analyzing data from the U.S. Census and city of Chicago Data Portal which shows 80% of Chicago households are online, but there are deep disparities between neighborhoods. In some neighborhoods, especially on the South and West sides, nearly 40% of the neighborhood doesn’t have internet.
“What we did in that study was do that analysis neighborhood by neighborhood across Chicago, which I think casts a particular light on which neighborhoods tend to have greater levels of adoption of internet access versus those that don’t. And I think slicing the data in that particular way highlights those disparities perhaps in ways that we haven’t looked at before,” said Nick Feamster, principal investigator of the Internet Equity Initiative.
The Mayor’s Office calls Chicago’s digital divide “a racial equity issue” and says on average, communities with the lowest connectivity rates are over 90% Black with median household incomes averaging less than $27,000.
“The digital divide is deeply interwoven with the issues of race, education and poverty, with awareness, affordability and access to internet being a legacy problem, with that disproportionately affecting people in economically disadvantaged communities, even in areas covered by internet, people remain unconnected and not by choice,” said Dwayne Douglas, who operates the Chicago Area Broadband Initiative and serves on the guiding team for the city’s digital equity council.
Douglas says that lack of affordability and access can put people at a disadvantage when it comes to applying for jobs, completing schoolwork or accessing government and community services. Those disadvantages became clear during the height of the COVID pandemic when Americans pivoted to virtual work and school.
In 2020, when children switched to remote learning, Kids First Chicago found one in five children in Chicago lacked access to reliable in-home internet, with most of those kids being Black or Latino.
“I think one of the benefits of, if you can think of any benefits or silver linings to the pandemic, is that we’re a parent advocacy group that focused on what parents tell us and the Internet, the digital access issue went from number 10 on the list of priorities for parents to number one,” said Daniel Anello, CEO of Kids First Chicago. “We helped the city launch a free internet program called Chicago Connected, which is now connecting 77,000 CPS students to free internet, but part of that came out of the urgency of just what, you know, we’re talking to parents and telling us what’s my neighbor gonna do, they don’t have access, they’re using their phone, they used to go outside to the library, park in the parking lot, get the internet that way, and to some degree there’s a little bit of a shame on all of us for thinking that that was an okay way for people to gain access.”
The University of Chicago’s Data Science Institute is also analyzing internet performance, another key element of bridging the digital divide.
“I think one of the things that study pointed out is that Chicago is a patchwork of neighborhoods and there’s huge variability in what’s going on from neighborhood to neighborhood, and so unfortunately at the moment we just have no data about how performance of those connections vary across households, across cities etc., what we know already is we know they vary,” said Feamster.
Researchers are now collecting data from volunteers who have installed a device on their router that measures internet performance to examine variations.