Nearly 30% of low-income young Americans rely on mobile internet

When much of the world went virtual in 2020, it exposed a gaping digital divide – which most knew existed, but which had not always been measured.

Nothing has highlighted our modern internet addiction like the early COVID-19 lockdowns. In what seemed like a moment, the world was working, going to school, shopping and socializing virtually. The lockdowns themselves were temporary, but the seismic virtual shift in work and education has clearly had permanent impacts on the way we live and work.

One of the problems pronounced by the pandemic is that many families without Wi-Fi are, in fact, connected to the Internet via smartphones and cellular data. That might have seemed enough to get by. Before distance learning, a child could use Google on a phone or tablet for homework help — but that same network isn’t equipped to support Zoom teaching hours.

Online cable-cutting resource analyzed data from the US Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample for its study “Who Relies Most on Cellular Data to Access the Internet?” identify locations where residents rely exclusively on cellular data for Internet access, with no other forms of Internet access such as broadband, dial-up, or satellite. The researchers also calculated the percentage of households without internet access, the median household income and the poverty rate.

They found that younger people – 18-29 year olds who likely grew up using a phone as their primary digital device – are much more likely to rely solely on cellular data. About 28% of this age group are cellular only, while less than 15% of all other (older) age groups are data dependent, as of 2021.

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When it comes to income, about 27% of households earning $30,000 or less per year depend on cellular data, as do about 20% of households earning $30,000 to $49,999. These figures drop below 10% when income exceeds $50,000 per year.

Location is also a factor. The regions most reliant on cellular data are in the south, with Mississippi (also the poorest state in the US) having the highest rate in the US at around 21%, followed by Arkansas, Oklahoma and Alabama, as well as the state of Alaska. All of these high dependency states also report poor internet coverage.

Living in a large metropolitan area makes it less likely to rely solely on cellular data, according to the report’s findings. The major metro area with the highest dependency rate, Birmingham-Hoover, Alabama, hits 16.4%, just over half the cellular dependency rate in the most data-dependent small metro area (Tyler , Texas) and the most cellular data-dependent mid-metro area (Brownsville-Harlingen, Texas), both of which saw a rate of 29%.

Rural areas, often the least served by high-speed Internet service, were only analyzed if they count as part of a metropolitan area, as the smallest areas surveyed had at least 100,000 or more residents.


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