Cities Where Residents Rely on Cellular Data to Access the Web & Stream
The COVID-19 pandemic will have many lasting effects on society, culture, and the economy, but one of the most significant changes is the world’s increased dependence on the internet. While internet access has been an important part of modern life for several decades, COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of internet technology in several ways. More K-12 schools and colleges have turned to online learning when faced with COVID outbreaks, large numbers of workers have permanently shifted to working from home or hybrid arrangements, and eCommerce, online communications, streaming platforms, and other online products and services have exploded in popularity.
However, this rapid transition has left some parts of the population behind, exacerbating disparities in internet access that experts refer to as the digital divide. Communities and individuals without access to reliable internet have less ability to work, learn, shop, and communicate online. While smartphones, tablets, and other devices with cellular data have become commonplace and allow people to access the web, these connections are usually slower and less reliable than high-quality internet service.
Disparities in whether and how people are able to access the internet break down on demographic lines. One of these differences is simply generational. Increasingly, there is a divergence between younger and older adults in terms of reliance on cellular data for internet access. Nearly one in three adults aged 18 to 29—a group that came of age as smartphones and similar technologies were becoming ubiquitous—report that they rely on cellular data for internet access, more than twice as high as any other age cohort.
But internet access is more frequently limited by household resources. Those with lower incomes tend to have a difficult time accessing the internet either because service is unaffordable or their communities do not have the same infrastructure available in wealthier, more developed areas. Households earning under $30,000 per year are much likelier than higher-earning households to rely on cellular data for internet access, with 27% of such households reporting doing so.
To address these challenges, policymakers have emphasized expanded access to internet infrastructure in their response to the pandemic. Two federal COVID-19 relief packages, the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan, included billions of dollars in flexible funds for state and local governments, and many states and localities have used their allocations to build out broadband infrastructure. More recently, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal passed and signed into law in November 2021 included $65 billion for broadband internet, with a goal of expanding reliable high-speed internet to millions of Americans who currently lack access. This is by far the largest federal investment in digital infrastructure in U.S. history.
Many of the locations most likely to benefit from these investments are rural states with lower household incomes, where internet infrastructure is unavailable or residents are unable to afford costs. The states with the highest reliance on cellular data for internet access are primarily located in the South, led by Mississippi at 20.1%, Arkansas at 17.4%, and Oklahoma at 17.1%. These are also among the states where residents are least likely to have any internet access at all.
At the metro level, household incomes and poverty rates similarly show a relationship to reliance on cellular data or an inability to access the internet generally. The locations where more people are using cellular data have relatively low incomes and higher poverty rates. In some of these communities, more than one in four residents can only access the internet using cellular data.
To identify the locations where residents rely exclusively on cellular data for internet access, researchers at HotDog.com used data from the U.S. Census Bureau to calculate the percentage of households whose only internet connection was through a cellular data plan. These households lacked other forms of internet access, such as broadband, dial-up, or satellite. Researchers also calculated the percentage of households without any access to the internet, median household income, and the poverty rate. To improve relevance, only locations with 100,000 residents or more were included.
Here are the large U.S. metros where residents rely on cellular data to access the web and stream.