Juliet Yates says the number one question she gets asked is how many people are without internet in Philadelphia.
Now, thanks to a recently completed citywide survey, “we have a really accurate dataset,” said Yates, the City of Philadelphia’s digital inclusion fellow.
A year and a half after work and learning shifted online amid the pandemic, broadband access stays top of mind for local government. Over the summer, the City began seeking information about how many households were connected to broadband internet access to better understand the digital access and internet needs of Philly residents.
It had some insight before via American Community Survey, a survey program conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, which showed around 70% of Philadelphia households had access to high-speed broadband access in 2019. And a thorough survey about connectivity done by city gov itself is rare, according to members of the City’s Office of Innovation and Technology (OIT). But the pandemic made understanding the status and health of internet access in Philadelphia a necessity.
Another drawback is that the ACS question about internet home access is open to interpretation by the respondent. One household might view a cellular data plan as broadband to the home access, but another might only think of wireline service as broadband service. 3/6
— Mark Wheeler (@Wheelmrk) August 31, 2021
In June, OIT and the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia tasked Wilco Electronic Systems with gathering this information. Wilco assembled a team including Centri Tech, SSRS and John Horrigan, a senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, to build and complete the survey throughout July.
Via about 2,500 phone surveys of residents lasting between eight and 10 minutes on average, the group was able to collect data about how Philadelphians use the internet, the impacts of lacking internet access, barriers to internet access, and the state of connectivity and device access throughout the city.
Here’s some high-level data the survey found:
- In 2021, about 84% of Philadelphia households have broadband access.
- Survey results estimate that without broadband programs like the City’s PHLConnectED, Comcast‘s Internet Essentials and the Emergency Broadband Benefit, about 75% of households would be connected in 2021. These discount broadband programs likely account for a 9% increase in broadband adoption citywide and a 21% increase in adoption for K-12 households.
- Of households with K-12 children, 91% have high-speed internet subscriptions at home and 92% of them have a desktop, laptop or tablet.
- Of all Philadelphia households, 81% have a desktop, laptop or tablet.
The surveyors were seeking to learn how much broadband programs would affect numbers of connectivity throughout the city, and Horrigan said the numbers, especially for K-12 families, reflect well. In 2019, there were about 28,000 K-12 children without broadband access, and that number has since dropped to 12,000.
“It shows they have an impact, especially on the intended audience,” Horrigan said during a Wednesday press briefing on the report.
The next steps for PHLConnectED, K-12 Digital Access Program Manager Ashley Pollard said, will be conducting direct household outreach to enroll those households that are still not connected.
"We need to meet folks where they are through trusted messengers and with support through enrollment."
“We either didn’t reach them or they fell out of the enrollment process at some point,” she said. “We need to meet folks where they are through trusted messengers and with support through enrollment.”
The biggest barriers to connectivity are price and lack of awareness of the programs that could assist with cost or device access, the surveyors found.
A small slice of the population surveyed includes older adults without interest to be connected, but two thirds of surveyed households said that paying more than $20 for internet imposed budget constraints. Most were signed up for service, even if it cost more than that limit, but said it did mean they had to cut back their budget in other ways. One third of those surveyed also fall into a group called “subscription vulnerability” meaning that they’re at risk of canceling service because of cost or would struggle to maintain it without broadband discounts.
The survey found that the least likely neighborhoods to have internet access were North Philadelphia with 77% of households and swaths of West Philadelphia around 83% of households. Center City had the most connected households at 91% connectivity. North Philadelphia and parts of Northeast Philadelphia were least likely to have a computer or tablet, with around 72% and 77%, respectively.
With this information in hand, the City plans to take advantage of upcoming state or federal funds or programs supporting broadband access. The proposed Infrastructure Bill, for example, proposes $65 billion for improving internet access. The City will also focus further on its innovation grants through the Digital Literacy Alliance that supports digital access.
It also will focus on the sustainability of PHLConnectED through future years, re-focus on opening reimagined public computer centers or KEYSPOTS, and develop and share the city-wide digital equity plan and strategy for Philadelphia.
“There’s a lot of potential now that we know these programs work and are impactful,” Yates said.