New Census data: Ohio’s broadband divide is urban as well as rural

Spectrum cable and AT&T fiber share a pole in Cleveland, where 47% of households have neither.

Ohio’s lame-duck General Assembly will soon give final approval to Amended House Bill 13, their long-awaited $50 million rural broadband bill. And the FCC has just announced $170 million in winning bids for Ohio broadband investments through its “Rural Development Opportunity Fund”. All $220 million is earmarked to build new high-speed Internet infrastructure for unserved rural areas of the state.

But newly released data from the U.S. Census shows that Ohio’s broadband divide (defined as the lack of fast home Internet service needed for school, work, healthcare, personal finances, family and community connections) is a serious issue for urban as well as rural communities.

In fact, most of the state’s households who lack good high-speed Internet connections are in “urban Ohio”, not “rural Ohio”.

On Thursday the U.S. Census released its 2015-2019 American Community Survey (ACS) 5-Year Estimates. Unlike the earlier 2019 ACS 1-Year Estimates, which only provided data for “census geographies” with 65,000 or more residents, the ACS 5-Year Estimates cover all U.S. communities and Census tracts of any size.

One key data point for digital equity is the share of households that still lack subscriptions to “Broadband such as cable, fiber optic or DSL”… often called “wireline broadband”.

In the 2015-2019 ACS, urban Ohio households without wireline broadband connections outnumbered rural households in the same situation nearly three to one. The number of households without wireline broadband in just the state’s nine biggest central cities almost matched the total in rural areas.

While the ACS doesn’t tell us anything about the speed of these connections, we know that cable modem and fiber services are typically much faster than the speeds that the Federal Communications Commission considers “true broadband”, i.e. 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up; while DSL speeds range from very slow to well above the 25/3 benchmark. Also, monthly data usage allowances on cable, fiber and DSL accounts are generally much bigger than those for mobile wireless or satellite Internet accounts. So the wireline numbers are as close as the ACS comes to telling us how many households have mainstream home Internet access.

Click on the graphic below (or here) to go to CYC’s interactive map of Ohio Census tracts, showing the percentage of households in each tract with no wireline broadband.

The red, orange, and yellow-shaded tracts are those where the ACS found more than 40% of households lacking wireline broadband connections. At first glance this seems to be a rural phenomenon; the cities and suburbs look very blue and green, until you zoom in to take a closer look. Here’s the zoomed-in view of Cleveland and its inner suburbs, for example:

By now this should be old news to Ohio’s leaders, who’ve spent the last nine months and tens of millions of dollars buying emergency home Internet connections for unconnected students in urban and suburban — as well as rural — school districts throughout the state.  By now the message should have reached the General Assembly and the DeWine Administration: Ohioans without broadband live in all kinds of communities, and the obstacles to digital inclusion that most face — notably unaffordable Internet prices — won’t be eliminated by a few more rural infrastructure subsidies.

Are the Governor and General Assembly getting this message? Will our state officials go beyond rural infrastructure subsidies to start confronting other aspects of Ohio’s broadband gap in 2021?

We’ll see soon. Stay tuned.