Image of elderly man using a cellphone
Some low-income Californians are caught in the digital divide: 16% are unconnected and 10% depend on smartphones.
Photo by: Joshua Woroniecki, Pixabay

USC-CETF survey finds California surpasses 90% internet connectivity

A version of this story also appeared on USC News.

Amid the pandemic, a survey from USC and the California Emerging Technology Fund reveals the regional and financial inequities that fuel the state’s digital divide.

California has reached a digital milestone, as nearly 91% of its households have high-speed internet access, according to new statewide survey results released Tuesday by USC and the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF).

That’s up from 88% reported in 2019 by the biennial Statewide Survey on Broadband Adoption that monitors Californians’ digital access. 

In addition, about 85% of residents — up from 78% two years ago — are using a desktop, laptop or tablet to connect to the internet. And fewer households — 6%, down from 10% two years ago — rely solely on smartphones to connect to the internet. Households linked via smartphone only are deemed “underconnected” by researchers and policy analysts because smartphones have more limited capabilities.

Graphic by Suz Boretz

Despite these gains, the latest survey also reveals that some low-income Californians are still caught in the digital divide: 16% are unconnected and 10% depend on smartphones. They lack home internet just when schools, jobs and even medicine have moved their services online in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The pandemic has renewed attention to the digital divide,” said Hernán Galperin, the study’s lead researcher and an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “We have a unique window of opportunity to reach the goal of full broadband adoption.”

This year’s survey is the first conducted jointly by USC and CETF, a nonprofit foundation with the mission to close the digital divide in California. CETF has been tracking Californians’ internet connectivity since 2008.

California internet access survey reveals income’s role as a digital gatekeeper

California has the highest number of people living in poverty of any state, despite having the fifth-largest economy in the world. Income is a key determinant in whether a household has internet access. A closer look at the survey results through the lens of income shows that nearly 30% of households earning less than $20,000 a year have no internet connection.

Residents earning less than $40,000 a year have made progress in internet connectivity from 2014 to 2019, according to prior surveys, but the latest results indicate that the progress has slowed. School, business and public library closures during the pandemic have likely further hindered their connectivity. 

Low-income households often have to make tradeoffs, even before the pandemic. Throughout the past year, many workers lost their jobs either temporarily or permanently, forcing them to forego services to save money, including disconnecting internet service. Nearly 1 in 5 low-income households in the survey that currently have access reported going without internet for extensive periods. Respondents also cited cost as the main reason for disconnecting their service.

Some internet service providers offer affordable plans for certain populations — primarily low-income families with school-age children — but those programs are not widely known: 2 out of 3 unconnected and smartphone-only households in the survey were unaware of these opportunities. The offers can be difficult to access, especially for anyone who does not speak English. And some families cannot afford service even with the discounts.

Graphic by Suz Boretz

“As going digital is a way of life, we are encouraged to see that overall internet adoption is increasing, said Sunne Wright McPeak, President and CEO of CETF. “Still, far too many Californians are up against a wall of poverty. From our work in education and telehealth, we know home internet is a catalyst for expanding opportunity for all Californians. It’s time for leadership from the highest levels of government and business to crush the wall of poverty.”

Notable regional, demographic disparities in access

The statewide findings show additional inequalities in internet connectivity persist across regions and various demographic groups.  Among the most significant findings:

  • The digital divide is both an urban and a rural issue: 19% of Los Angeles County and 20% of Central Valley households either have no connection or they rely on smartphones.
  • Nearly a quarter (24%) of Hispanics are unconnected or restricted to smartphones. Other groups are more connected. For example, 5% of whites are unconnected and 4% of them are on smartphones. 
  • Digital inequity is greatest among Hispanics who only speak Spanish. Just 65% are connected while 25% have no connection and 10% rely on smartphones.
  • 23% of Californians ages 65 and older lack broadband, versus an estimated 10% of Californians ages 50 to 64, and less than 5% ages 18 to 49. However, when including smartphones, 77% of seniors 65 and older are connected, an improvement from 68% two years ago. 
  • 27% of people with disabilities are unconnected or connected only via smartphone, versus 15% for the overall population.

“There are still some challenges on the road to digital equity,” said Galperin. “There’s no guarantee that the emergency measures taken to shore up access to the Internet and devices will continue after the pandemic, while those still left behind may be the hardest to connect.”

Graphic by Suz Boretz

USC and the fund will release more results in the coming weeks that will focus on access to telehealth and distance learning.

“The partnership between the California Emerging Technology Fund and USC is providing vital data and timely information to inform public policy and drive action,” said Barbara O’Connor, chair of the fund’s board of directors.

For over a decade, California internet access survey measures digital inequity

The Statewide Survey on Broadband Adoption has been conducted annually or biennially since 2008. This year’s survey of 1,650 California adults was conducted from Feb. 10 to March 22 in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Vietnamese, with 94% of interviews conducted via mobile phones and 6% via landline to reflect patterns in the population. The overall sample error is +/- 2 percentage points with a 95% confidence interval. The survey results are weighted for age, gender, race/ethnicity, education and region based on totals from the American Community Survey (ACS). 

Data are broken down between those who rely on a smartphone for connectivity (and thus will have more limited capabilities) and those who access the Internet through a desktop computer, laptop or tablet.

To read the first report, click here.