Digital divide could hamper streaming growth

Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

 

Low-income Chicago neighborhoods, suburbs lag behind

With Dancing With The Stars and Thursday Night Football – two long-time broadcast programs moving to streaming this fall, it signaled something we knew for years – television is shifting to a streaming model as the growth of Netflix and other services have proven. Content ranging from sports to Charlie Brown specials have already made the shift to the platform.

But for many viewers in some of Chicago’s low-income neighborhoods and suburbs, they may be left behind. 

A study released Monday by the University of Chicago Data Science Institute showed numerous Chicago neighborhoods on the South and West side of the city lag behind in the number of homes who have broadband, or any kind of internet access. And those who have internet say their service isn’t quite up to snuff as opposed to wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. It’s what we call the “digital divide”. 

And the problem expands beyond the city, too. Many north and far west suburban households are likely to have broadband service than their counterparts in the south suburbs, Cook County western suburbs, and Northwest Indiana. 

In a spreadsheet complied several weeks ago using 2020 Census information from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency of Planning, the neighborhood least-connected in Chicago proper is Burnside on the South Side with 58 percent (of the 58 percent, 52 percent have broadband), meaning 42 percent of households do not have internet access. Just up the road in Avalon Park – a predominately Black area of Chicago where this blog calls home, an eye-popping 25.7 percent of residents have no internet access in this supposedly middle-class area of the South Side, including 25 percent in the census tract I live in. 

In fact, many South and West side communities – home to the majority of Chicago’s Black and Latino populations, lacked internet access, broadband or otherwise. These include West Englewood (38.1%), Englewood (34.6%), West Garfield Park (32.6%), East Garfield Park (31.6%), Auburn Gresham (30.8%), South Lawndale and Austin (30.0% each), Chatham (29.7%), Roseland (26.1%) South Shore (25.2%), Woodlawn (23.8%), Humboldt Park and Riverdale (24.4% each), Chicago Lawn (23.7%) South Deering (22.4%), Belmont Cragin (22%) South Chicago (21.4%), West Pullman (20.6%), Archer Heights (19.7%) and Calumet Heights and Douglas (18.2% each).

Not surprisingly, the most internet-connected neighborhoods were in whiter, more affluent neighborhoods, where households without internet access were much lower: the Near North side (home to Streeterville and the Gold Coast) with 5.1%; Lincoln Park (6.3%), Beverly (7.8%), and Hyde Park (9.1%), the latter two the only South Side communities where households who had internet access was 90 percent or higher. 

A 2011 photo of Gary, Indiana, which the least- connected city in Northwest Indiana. (Photo courtesy of takingactioningary/Wikipedia)

The disparity expands into the suburbs as well. Municipalities in northern Cook and Lake County (Ill.) are more likely broadband connected than their south suburban Cook and Will counterparts. The suburb with the highest number of non-internet households is Robbins with 38.5%, one of the highest-poverty suburbs in Cook County. In our sample, this was followed by Ford Heights (28.1%), Schiller Park (25.4%), Maywood (25.1%), Chicago Heights and Harvey (24.8% each), East Hazel Crest (23.6%), Blue Island (23.3%), Broadview (20.3%) and Summit (19.8%). 

Not surprisingly, the most connected were in more affluent suburbs, with low numbers of households without internet: Wheaton (5.7%) Vernon Hills (6.9%), Elmhurst (7.2%), Beecher (7.8%), Park Ridge (8%), Homewood (8.4%), Arlington Heights (8.7%), Oak Park (8.9%), Lombard (9.5%), Olympia Fields (9.7%), and Westchester (10.8%). Of these, only Olympia Fields is majority-Black while Homewood, Oak Park, and Westchester are more racially diverse (for more data, click here to go to T Dog Media’s Slideshare page.) 

The disparities also extend to Northwest Indiana, where Gary is the least broadband-connected city in the region as the struggling steel town is more than 75 percent black and mostly low-income. Neighboring cities Hammond and East Chicago also have low connectivity rates, as opposed to Dyer, Schererville, and Hobart, who are more affluent than their neighbors above Interstate 80/94. A story on Gary’s digital divide was featured at nwi.com March 20.

“Where I sit, it’s obvious when you look at the [broadband] map. You chose not to invest in the communities that are African American, simple as that,” said Lloyd Keith, who is chief innovation officer for the city of Gary and before that, director of IT for the Gary School Corporation.  “They claim it is because there are not enough houses to make it a good return on investment… I understand that, but give us a solution. Don’t just leave us out there.” This apparently became clear after Gary school students had trouble connecting during the pandemic as high-speed fiber internet is mostly unavailable as the map he was referring to showed Gary nearly in an island to itself among Northwest Indiana cities when it came to broadband access.

Indeed, lackluster infrastructure and investment is part of the problem. In Avalon Park, there are only two choices for high-speed internet – Xfinity (Comcast) and Astound (formerly RCN/WOW), who sell expensive packages. A third, AT&T only has two decade-old DSL internet, with speeds topping out at 2.5 Mbps – not suitable for streaming, telehealth, or doing much of anything else other than checking e-mail and reading web pages. AT&T has rolled out faster Fiber service, but only available in certain (read…white) areas and not available throughout much of the South Side as the telecom giant refuses to make the investments here. 

So is 5G internet from T-Mobile and Verizon the answer? Even though the website Broadband Now showed T-Mobile available in the 60619 zip code, typing in a home address said otherwise, and the same with Verizon. 

The same scene is playing out across the country.  A similar study was recently released about broadband connectivity in the St. Louis area, showing the same disparity. Detroit residents took to building their own internet service to address the digital divide. In Cleveland, Black residents sued AT&T over shoddy internet service

With the rollout of broadband iffy at best to low-income and rural communities, you have to question the industry’s rush to put all of their eggs in the streaming basket. DWTS for one, has a mostly older clientele – one who aren’t heavy streaming users. Another is MLB and the NHL striking deals with streamers for exclusive games, shutting those with lesser means out. We saw this in the early 1980s, when the Chicago White Sox moved a lot of their games to pay subscription TV at a time with rival Cubs games were more accessible over-the-air for free on WGN-TV – one of the reasons Haray Caray switched from the South Side to the North Side and became a beloved icon in Wrigleyville. 

Streaming is the future – that is, until the revelation of Netflix’s subscribers bumrushing for the exits, which tanks the company’s stock price. Maybe reality is finally catching up with Hollywood and sports leagues as viewers of all income levels are cutting budgets due to inflation and skyrocketing gas prices. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Netflix is looking at a lower-cost alternatives with advertising, but you need the broadband to power these streaming services in the first place. If the inability to bridge the digital divide continues and lower and middle-income viewers and those on fixed incomes can’t obtain better quality internet connections, it could wind up hampering growth not only for Netflix, but for all streaming services. 

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