Digital gaps still divide Minnesota and the nation along racial, economic and geographic lines, even as high-speed Internet becomes more widespread and indispensible to people’s lives.
Nationally, about 77 percent of Americans have a high-speed internet connection, served up via broadband networks either on their home computers, tablets, phones or other devices, according to 2015 data released this month by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
Minnesota, while slightly ahead of the national rate, lags behind many states on the West Coast and Northeast where home broadband is most common.
Measuring whether someone has broadband at home – which the survey defines as either cable, DSL, fiber optic, satellite, mobile broadband, or fixed wireless online connections on any device – has basically become a proxy for whether they have internet at all. Older forms of online connectivity have become relatively rare. (About 14,000 households still use dial-up in Minnesota.)
New Hampshire boasted the highest connectivity with 85 percent, followed closely by 12 other states. Minnesota came in at about 80 percent, according to the survey conducted in 2015. More recent studies limited to Minnesota yielded slightly higher estimates for the state.
Many of the states with the lowest rates are in the south, with Mississippi resting at the bottom with 61 percent. Minnesota's neighbors – Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota – fall just below the national average.
Lower connectivity rates among certain demographic groups raises concerns because the internet has increasingly become crucial to seeking jobs, taking classes, finding places to live, monitoring bank accounts, using government services and staying informed on current events.
About a third of black and Hispanic households nationally and a quarter in Minnesota don’t have home broadband on any device. Asians, however, have the highest rates of home broadband, just outpacing white households.
Nationally, about half of households making less than $20,000 a year lack broadband internet. Meanwhile nearly everyone making $75,000 or more reported having it. Similar trends are visible among those without a high school diploma when compared to those with college degrees.
Residents of metro areas also tend to have more broadband internet than those in non-metro regions, according to the 2015 American Community Survey data. More recent data made public this summer by Connect Minnesota found that 98 percent of Twin Cities area households have broadband compared to 84 percent of outstate households.
While there’s still an urban/rural digital divide in Minnesota, broadband connectivity has increased statewide across different speed tiers, including in outstate Minnesota.
For instance, though rural counties like Marshall, Yellow Medicine and Aitkin have less than half their households with wired broadband, outstate areas like Red Lake, Cook and Rock now have nearly complete coverage, according to the 2017 Connect Minnesota data.
The disconnect for some of these counties seems at least partially rooted in the number of companies providing internet access in their communities. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data shows many areas with only one or no broadband providers for home connections. (This doesn't include mobile phone connections.)
As for why some people have broadband internet and others don’t, research reveals a variety of reasons related to educational and economic challenges, with availability playing only a small role.
Among Minnesotans who don’t have home broadband, 41 percent said they viewed it as irrelevant, according a 2013 Connect Minnesota study on technology use, while about 19 percent saw cost as the biggest barrier and 13 percent blamed a lack of digital literacy. Only 6 percent said it had to do with availability issues.
It’s also worth noting that the FCC changed the definition of high-speed, or broadband, internet in 2015 from a minimum of 4Mbps download/1Mbps upload to 25Mbps download/3Mbps upload, increasing the number of Americans without connections considered as broadband.
Regardless, faster broadband speeds have become increasingly common throughout Minnesota in recent years, and in a relatively short period of time.
It remains to be seen whether U.S. internet speeds, which the FCC reports lag behind many other countries in certain ways, will eventually catch up internationally.