CivicScience Tech Lens Series: From microchips to macro trends — in this series we explore our rapidly evolving relationship with devices, social media, and all things digital.

Reliable internet access is something that’s easily taken for granted. As society’s dependence on staying connected only grows stronger, CivicScience data on internet access indicates that many Americans are still lagging behind.

Recent findings show that the majority of households pay for a form of home internet service. Just over 60% report having a high-speed broadband home connection through a fiber or cable provider, such as Verizon Fios or Spectrum Internet, while more than 20% maintain an alternative type of home service, such as a fixed WiFi or DSL service. 

However, 16% of respondents do not pay for a home internet service provider; 12% of households rely primarily on their cellular data plans to access the internet (using a smartphone, other mobile device, or hotspot connection) and 4% do not have any way to access the internet at home.

Reliability Ratings

Looking at reliability, less than half (47%) of respondents say their home internet service is very reliable and around one-third (35%) rate their service as somewhat reliable. Ten percent claim their service is not at all reliable, while the remainder of people are either uncertain about their connection or do not have home internet service.

Further analysis shows that reliability depends heavily on the type of internet connection. Fiber or cable services are rated as the most reliable by far. On the other hand, more than one-third of people who rely primarily on their cellular data plans say their service is unreliable. And more than one-quarter of those who depend on fixed WiFi service (such as Rise Broadband or Verizon LTE) and satellite service (such as HughesNet or Starlink) lack a reliable connection.

Differences in Urbanicity

High-speed fiber and cable services aren’t available everywhere, leaving many to depend on alternative types of internet services that are not as fast or reliable. 

Rural areas are especially affected. Survey results show that just 50% of people who live in rural areas have fiber or cable services, compared to 63% of urban and 69% of suburban dwellers. Rural dwellers are the most likely to depend on cellular data to access the internet at home, although it is worth noting that city dwellers are the most likely to lack any home internet connection.

Rural dwellers are also more than twice as likely as city or suburban dwellers to say their internet connection is unreliable.

Income Disparities

High-speed services may also be unaffordable to some Americans. Government programs enacted during the pandemic, such as the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, intend to remedy this systemic problem by providing subsidies for monthly internet payments to qualifying individuals. 

Even with the availability of these programs, lower income households making $50,000 or less per year are the most disadvantaged when it comes to internet access. They are more than twice as likely as higher earners to lack any form of home internet access. They are also the most likely to lack a broadband connection and instead use a dial-up service. And a significant portion (18%) use their cellular data to access the internet at home.

Furthermore, lower income households are far more likely to lack a reliable internet connection compared to higher earning households.

Disadvantages Among Consumer Trends

Lack of a reliable high-speed internet connection – or an internet connection at all – leads to disadvantages in an increasingly digitizing economy. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified the digital divide in a number of ways, where having a reliable internet connection became necessary for remote schooling and working, and for many to access healthcare services. 

Results show how wide this gap is when it comes to telemedicine. People without a high-speed broadband connection are the least likely to have used telemedicine services over the course of the pandemic. Less than one-quarter of individuals with dial-up service or no service at all have tried telemedicine. In contrast, those who primarily use cell phone data to get online are the most likely to have used telemedicine services. 

While progress expanding internet access and affordability has been made over the past few years, it’s clear that continuing efforts are still needed. Given that CivicScience conducts online surveys to collect data, it’s likely the percentage of Americans without any home internet access is even higher than 4%. Some reports within the past five years estimate 21 million to more than 100 million who lack a home or broadband internet connection, although the consensus is still out. Better understanding who these individuals are likely to be can help to close the digital divide.