By Dr. Patrick Jones
A few months ago, virtual interactions were in the ascendancy in the business world. But not the norm. Enter the corona virus pandemic. Now many of us have pivoted to a professional life filled with Zoom, Team, Google Meet, or any number of other versions of online gatherings. Without these, it is likely that the wheels of commerce would have ground even more slowly in the face of covid-19-induced shutdowns.
To effectively communicate in this way, however, one needs computers and fast connections. Let’s assume that most residents in the greater Tri Cities have access to online life – a computer, tablet or smart phone. But those devices are no guarantee of the ability to conduct some form of virtual life. For that broadband is called for.
How do the two counties fare by this measure? Thanks to a fairly recent Census set of questions on the American Community Survey (ACS) and tracked by Indicator 0.2.4 in the Trends, we have a good idea. The short answer: not too great, but not too bad. In particular, for 2018, Census estimated that about 81% of households enjoyed a broadband connection. For the three years in which the ACS has asked this question, there has been little movement.
As we can easily observe, the second most common type of internet connection is cell service, at nearly 12%. Other types make up the small difference.
One can further observe that this rate is considerably lower than that of Washington. For 2018, the share of households with broadband in the Evergreen state was nearly 86%. Over the three-year period, this share hasn’t changed either. Interestingly, broadband penetration in the greater Tri Cities largely tracks that of the U.S.
Not surprisingly, a difference exists between the two counties. As a click on the radio buttons on the graph of Indicator 0.2.4 shows, the difference between the two-county average and Franklin County amounted to about five percentage points in 2018. In contrast, Benton County ran ahead of the two-county average by about two percentage points.
Why this distribution holds is both puzzling and understandable. First, Franklin County’ population is actually more urban/less rural than Benton’s. Washington State’s Office of Financial Management estimated for 2019 that the incorporated population in Benton was about 18% versus 13% in Franklin. On the other hand, as Indicator 3.1.2 demonstrates, incomes are typically lower in Franklin than in Benton Counties. For 2018, the ACS reported Benton County’s median household income at about $68,000, while in Franklin it stood at about $60,000. Broadband service definitely carries a price tag and it is likely that many households simply cannot afford it.
While not a part of the indicator’s Download Data spreadsheet, data pairing internet connection with household income and race & ethnicity are available from Census. The first pair confirms the hypothesis above, showing a positive connection with income and internet connectivity. More specifically, this data set, Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMA) shows that for the most recent 5-year period (2014-2018), the percentage of households with income at or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) was more than three times (7% vs. 2%) than those with middle-to-high incomes to have no internet connection at all.
A similar divide exists between Latino and non-Latino households, according to the PUMA data on the two counties. The share of Latino households without any internet connection was more than twice as high as the share of non-Latino households, 10% versus 4%. Of course, this dichotomy largely reflects the household income data.
Then there is the possible issue of the local service providers’ willingness to extend broadband to residences. Yet, between cable, telecom and satellite and a PUD, the Tri Cities sport nearly a dozen providers of broadband. Supply of copper or fiber appears available.
It will not surprise this observer of the Tri Cities that in the aftermath of the pandemic, broadband penetration will rise. If the pandemic has taught us anything beyond social distancing and the need for better preparedness, it is that both businesses and households can function relatively well in a virtual world.