Households with an Internet Connection: Now for School and Work Too

by Dr. Patrick Jones

Who in Spokane ever anticipated the daunting challenges the corona virus has posed? A few of course, among them our hospitals. By and large, we have all been cast into new worlds of individual and collective behavior since mid-March.

One of those worlds is the conversion of our lives to virtual interactions. This applies to many in business, certainly most of the educational institutions and a good part of our social lives. How many of us knew Zoom six, even three, months ago? Yet today, we can’t get by without it or likeminded products. Zoom business meetings, Zoom live entertainment, government by Zoom, cooking by Zoom, family reunions by Zoom, and again for educational institutions, commencement exercises by Zoom.

Behind our ability to connect this way lies an important measure of life in the early 21st century:  the degree of internet penetration. Without widespread connectivity, we simply cannot connect with each other as we have before. And that physical connectivity needs to be fast enough to handle the demands of video communications in groups, sometimes large ones. This infrastructure certainly counts a piece of pandemic preparedness.

Spokane Trends contains two measures that help us understand where our county stands with internet connectivity: Indicator 0.3.5, the Number and Share of Households with Internet, and Indicator 0.3.6, Share of Internet Connection by Type. Generally, the two indicators tell a positive story., but one that can be improved.

Taking up the first, which considers total connections and their penetration into the households of the county, we can observe for the most recent year, 2018, the following:  about 185,000 households enjoyed some form of internet connection, translating into about a 90% penetration. The compares favorably to the U.S. rate of about 85%. The rate here is essentially equivalent to that of the state. Internet penetration in Spokane County is also the highest among all eastern Washington metro areas, with the Tri Cities ranked second.

A connection (or not) is one measure. But the “size of the pipe” of the internet into our homes and businesses is another. Does Spokane’s high rate of internet penetration generally permit high bandwidth content like Zoom? Indicator 0.3.6 tells a little less optimistic story. For 2018, about 82% of county households enjoyed a form of broadband. This rate is about the same as the U.S. For Washington state, the equivalent measure was nearly 86%.  Doing the math on the data from the two indicators, we can estimate that about 77% of all Spokane County indicators enjoyed broadband connection.

Does that share leave enough connections so Zoom or its like can bring most people? Together? Yes, that is, unless you’re poor. The Census, source of the two indicators, breaks down internet connectivity by income. It should come as no surprise that connectivity moves positively with household income.

One of the many geographical regions defined by Census is a Public Use Microdata Area, or PUMA. Spokane County contains four PUMAs. Within a PUMA, one can find cross tabulations of one measure of interest with another. What do the most recent PUMA files for Spokane County show for the relationship between household income and internet connectivity? Generally, a confirmation of the positive relationship. In the four districts, those households at or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) reported that about 10-15% had no internet connection. Those at the opposite end of the income spectrum – 501% or higher than the FPL - reported that only 3-4% were without an internet connection. In other words, those at or below the FPL were three or four more times likely to report that they had no internet connection than those with high incomes.

If we then want to understand the distribution of internet connections, and certainly broadband connections, look no further than our county’s poorest neighborhoods. This status has certainly weighed on the current efforts by county school districts to conduct education online. Either low income families haven’t been able to provide computers for their kids or if they have, they don’t enjoy broadband connections. The digital divide usually refers to yawning differences in connectivity between rural and urban America. Spokane County has its own version of the divide.

It is unclear whether the causes of absent broadband in certain neighborhoods result from the absence of the physical infrastructure or from adequate income to afford the service. The best explanation is probably a combination of both. Closing the digital divide within our county poses some interesting policy questions. Is this an area that local government can or should play a role – either from financial incentives to providers or to households? Might federal funds help the constraint of low physical connectivity?

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly shown that high speed internet connectivity is now essential infrastructure. But unlike the universal service requirements of utilities, that connectivity at this point is far from universal.