CETF-USC Statewide Broadband Adoption Survey: Internet Adoption and the Digital Divide in California

April 11, 2021

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The 2021 Statewide Survey on Broadband Adoption was conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California (USC), led by Associate Professor Hernan Galperin, as part of a new research partnership between CETF and USC. The findings show that the share of California residents with Internet access at home continues to rise, with overall adoption surpassing the 90% mark for the first time. While this represents an important milestone for the state, the findings also show that progress is uneven and many continue to be on the wrong side of the digital divide. Further, the survey reveals how the COVID-19 pandemic has created both new opportunities as well as new challenges for achieving digital equity.

Among the key findings are:

  • California has reached a digital milestone as nearly 91% of its households have high-speed internet access, 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 are deemed “underconnected” by researchers and policy analysts because smartphones have more limited capabilities.
  • Despite these gains, the latest survey also reveals that some low-income Californians are 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.
  • 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 30% of households earning less than $20,000 a year have no internet connection.
  • Residents earning less than $40,000 a year had 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.
  • Nearly a quarter (24%) of Hispanics are unconnected or restricted to 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.  Other groups are more connected. For example, 5% of whites are unconnected and 4% of them are on smartphones.
  • 23% of Californians ages 65 and older lack broadband, compared to 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, compared to 15% of the overall population.

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