Map the broadband adoption rates in, say, San Antonio, and a pattern emerges that closely reflects the region's socioeconomic geography. Households in and around the downtown business district overwhelmingly have broadband. But just west of Interstates 10 and 35, in the adjacent neighborhoods that are home to many of the city's Hispanic poor, fewer than 20 percent of households do.
From there, starting at the urban core and moving into outer neighborhoods, then into the northern suburbs and beyond, broadband rates appear to swell with income. A related pattern recurs in many cities: People are online in droves – watching Netflix, paying bills, reading the day's news – downtown and in the suburbs, but not so much in inner-city neighborhoods.
Here is metropolitan San Antonio, on a map created by the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation. This picture is divided by Census tract. In the dark-green swathes, more than 80 percent of households have broadband. In the orange ones, fewer than 20 percent do.
And, for comparison, Nashville:
Both cities are on the list announced last week for potential expansion by Google Fiber, the newest entrant into the broadband market that has the potential of bridging these digital divides. In total, Google is in talks with 34 cities in nine metropolitan areas, in a bid to expand its industry-leading broadband speeds beyond Kansas City, Austin, and Provo, Utah.
The prospect of more Google Fiber – even if we're still just talking about a sliver of the national market – has implications for digital inclusion for two reasons. As broadband increasingly looks more like a utility than a luxury, these 34 cities now preparing local assessments to woo Google invariably will be forced to ponder maps like the ones above (groups like OTI will ensure they do).
Google hasn't explicitly asked cities to do this. It is asking each one to complete a checklist assessing its existing conduit, gas and electric lines, its utility poles, and its regulatory obstacles. The company has so far made no public mention of asking cities to corral socioeonomic data. But the hefty front-end planning – and the fact that Google Fiber's first foray into Kansas City was criticized for leaving out poor communities – means that the coming months now offer a unique opportunity for advocates and local officials to confront the problem of broadband's patchy adoption.
In a tangible way, Google Fiber also promises to bring more competition to an industry that currently has little motivation to offer more affordable (or better) services.
"We have an extremely constrained marketplace with basically monopoly or duopoly control at this point," says Greta Byrum, a senior field analyst at OTI. She's primarily talking about Verizon and Comcast, two companies reliant on existing infrastructure, not new capital investments (Verizon's FiOS has stalled for now). "What Google is doing – first of all, they’re important new players in the marketplace that has been so limited. And secondly, they are forward-thinking in terms of the infrastructure itself."
Google Fiber touts connections that are 100 times faster than typical broadband speeds. At that rate, you could download a high-definition movie in less than a minute. But that's a bit beside the point in conversations about equitable access to the Internet. In public libraries, people who otherwise have no access at home primarily turn up for three reasons: in search of employment or education, health information, or banking services.
Increasingly, these services are primarily (or exclusively) accessed via the Internet. Just look at healthcare.gov, the first government service offered only online (if you call technical support, or visit a real-life navigator, that person is just going to get online with you). This is why it matters that the rate of broadband adoption for the lowest-income families is half of what it is for the wealthiest. This is why the cities shown above can and should use the Google Fiber exercise to consider new ways of serving communities that have been left behind, even if they aren't ultimately selected for the expansion. This is why Google should ask for and care about maps like the ones above.
At stake isn't the ability to stream House of Cards. It's the ability to participate fully in a society that's increasingly moving online.
Typically, Google Fiber asks would-be "fiberhoods" to commit to subscribing to the service before it builds out the infrastructure. And so it's little doubt that low-income neighborhoods have struggled to sign up the critical mass (using credit cards) that Google Fiber requires. Community groups, though, could work in these places to organize residents, or subsidize their costs, or create neighborhood centers with communal access.
"The absolute endpoint outcome isn’t necessarily that all the census tracts are green," says Georgia Bullen, a field operations technologist at OTI who worked along with Byrum on the broadband adoption maps. "The way we think about the technology right now is completely predicated on this idea that the right outcome is that you have service at home, that every single person has a contract. And that's not necessarily the model that will ever be most successful."
Maybe households share bandwidth. Maybe neighbors gather in rec centers. Either way, now's the time to consider which communities have few options at all.
It's unclear why broadband penetration is so low in these red and orange patches. Those communities may not be served by current infrastructure. Or it's possible the infrastructure exists, but households just can't afford it, or have chosen not to subscribe for other reasons. The FCC currently doesn't require broadband providers to turn over pricing data, so it's hard to tell.
Byrum and Bullen admit that they'd love to build better maps than these: maps broken down at finer levels than census tracts, maps with more specific numbers than penetration quintiles, maps with local data on how much broadband actually costs. But the FCC requests none of that information from companies like Comcast and Verizon (in fact, it recently declined to do so). And so OTI is also hoping Google Fiber will prompt one other benefit: It could help push more transparent data in an industry that gives up little.
In the meantime, these are the best maps we've got, all courtesy of OTI:
Update: The New America Foundation has put together a user's guide for creating similar maps. Find it here.