New Data Reveal Digital Divides across DC Neighborhoods

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MaKenzie, 6, works on a laptop while her mom attends a meeting at DC Prep Charter Elementary School on December, 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images).

Last November, we launched an online tool that explores DC’s equity gaps across a range of indicators such as educational attainment, prenatal care, and homeownership. Because of a lack of data, home access to broadband internet—which allows DC’s residents to access our tool and any other online resource—was left unexplored.

Thanks to the release of 2013–17 five-year estimates from the American Community Survey, we can now explore how the rate of households with broadband subscriptions varies across DC’s wards and neighborhoods. Varying rates of subscription to high-speed internet in DC follows existing patterns of inequities, which are the result of decades of discriminatory policies and practices that still affect outcomes in education, income, and employment by race and place.

Why internet access matters

Ensuring residents can access broadband internet at home could help address DC’s inequities. Broadband subscriptions can be critical for finding jobs and reducing the time it takes to find them (PDF), studying for a credential or college degree, and expanding small businesses, all of which contribute to broader economic growth (PDF).

Eighty-three percent of DC households have access to the internet, but only 70 percent report having a broadband subscription at home, a slightly higher share than in the US overall (67 percent). Broadband subscriptions via cable, fiber optics, or DSL are those most likely to have the higher download and upload speeds the FCC recommends as necessary for regular internet use.

We find estimates for broadband subscription rates vary widely across wards. Only 45 percent of households in Ward 7 and 48 percent of households in Ward 8 have broadband subscriptions, compared with 82 percent of households in Ward 2 and 86 percent in Ward 3. By neighborhood, the range widens, for example, from 37 percent of households Mayfair, Hillbrook, and Mahaning Heights neighborhoods, though 90 percent of households have broadband in Spring Valley, Palisades, Wesley Heights, and Foxhall.

If we closed the equity gap between the neighborhoods of Mayfair, Hillbrook, and Mahaning Heights, and DC overall, 1,061 more households would have a broadband internet subscription. If we set a goal to bring the broadband subscription rate in Ward 7 to 90 percent, 13,551 more households would be connected.

What explains these gaps, and how can we address them?

For some parts of the US, access to a broadband connection is a big reason for low subscription rates. But for DC, by some estimates, 99 percent of households have access to a broadband connection.

But the cost of an internet subscription is a bigger barrier for many DC residents, as is true nationally. Lacking digital literacy skills or equipment (PDF), such as a computer, can also limit broadband internet access. Meanwhile, an increasing share of people think a smartphone is sufficient for all their internet needs, which may suppress broadband subscription rates. Meanwhile, an increasing share of people think a smartphone is sufficient for all their internet needs, which may suppress broadband subscription rates. Smartphones are valuable for many purposes, but they cannot be the only internet access point for people seeking to take an online class or run a small business.

Strategies to reduce the cost of broadband internet, ensure all neighborhoods have reliable and high-speed broadband, and provide digital literacy and technology training can improve equity and reduce the digital divide.

2015 report (PDF) on the DC’s digital divide describes the DC government’s and nonprofits’ efforts to address the divide and improve broadband uptake through development of infrastructure, training programs, and access to more affordable options. Though progress has certainly been made, these data on equity gaps can help residents and local leaders continue the conversation and tailor solutions so that all households can fully participate in the opportunities 21st century technology provides.