Internet is a fundamental part of our everyday life. It is prevalent throughout society in how we do business, interact with government, and connect with others. The wealth of information that the internet offers is an indispensable resource that has become more widespread over the last thirty years. But how accessible is it? Factors such as community infrastructure and personal income can result in varying levels of internet access and speed, but what does this breakdown look like? This article explores factors that affect the level of internet access for 38 communities in Southern Arizona. These communities include cities, towns, and Census Designated Places (CDP) within the counties of Cochise, Pima, Pinal, Greenlee, Graham, Santa Cruz, and Yuma. Due to the importance of mining in Greenlee County, we also include three nearby communities in New Mexico: Bayard, Hurley, and Silver City. Note that, in some instances, we do not present data for several communities because the estimates were not sufficiently precise. Additional information at the community level can be explored in the 2017 Southern Arizona Communities Snapshot.
This article investigates internet access based on types of computing devices and income. Additionally, the differences in internet usage for communities designated as urban and non-urban will be examined. Traditionally, non-urban areas tend to have less access to the internet due to insufficient infrastructure as well as the expense involved.1 In 2018, the Federal Communications Commission found that “80.0% of the 24 million American households who lack reliable, affordable, high-speed internet are in rural areas.”2 Identifying areas that are non-urban is beneficial in deciding which areas should be targeted as potential recipients for better internet infrastructure. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced a new program to improve broadband accessibility for non-urban areas across the country.3 They are offering $600 million in grants and loans to “communities with fewer than 20,000 people with no broadband service or where service is slower than 10 megabits per second (mbps) download and 1 mbps upload.”4
At the regional level, Pima Association of Governments, the metropolitan planning organization and council of governments for the Pima County region, is currently undertaking a Regional Assessment of Advanced Communications Infrastructure Needs and Opportunities. The goal of the regional assessment is to guide next steps for improving access to ubiquitous, ultra-high speed, optimized connectivity in the region. This increased connectivity can improve advanced regional communication services and lay the foundation for innovations, such as smart city technologies and internet of things (IoT) applications. The goal of these improvements is to advance economic growth, enhance government services, and increase the quality of life in the region.
In this article we categorized Southern Arizona communities as urban and non-urban based upon 2010 Census Urbanized Area boundaries for Arizona. According to the Census Bureau, an urbanized area is a region with 50,000 or more people. The Census Bureau designated four urbanized areas in Southern Arizona in 2010: Casa Grande, Tucson, Yuma, and Sierra Vista.5 These urbanized area boundaries, proximity to the boundaries, and the Southern Arizona communities’ populations were used to determine urban or non-urban designations for this article.
Figures 1 illustrates the percent of households with an internet subscription in each Southern Arizona community, both urban and non-urban, in 2017. This includes all types of internet subscriptions such as dialup, broadband, and cellular plans. The Corona de Tucson CDP posted the highest percentage of households with an internet subscription at 97.0%. That was 18.3 percentage points higher than the U.S. rate. The Vail CDP and the town of Marana followed closely behind at 93.9% and 92.2% respectively. Of all the Southern Arizona communities, the town of Miami had the lowest percentage of households with an internet subscription at 38.0%, while the city of South Tucson posted the second lowest rate, more than 10 percentage points ahead at 48.8%.
Figure 1: Percent of Households with an Internet Subscription (2017)
Among the urban communities, the city of South Tucson had the lowest percentage of households with an internet subscription at 48.8% in 2017. The city of Eloy posted the second lowest rate, more than 10 percentage points ahead at 59.4% and the city of Somerton followed closely at 60.0%. Of the 23 urban areas explored, 14 had a lower rate of internet subscriptions than the U.S. rate of 78.7%. The town of Marana posted the highest rate of all urban communities at 92.2% and the Tanque Verde CDP and the town of Sahuarita were less than a percentage point behind at 91.8%. Figure 2 highlights the percentage of internet subscriptions for all urban areas.
Figure 2: Percent of Urban Households with an Internet Subscription (2017)
For the non-urban areas, the Corona de Tucson CDP had the largest percentage of households with internet subscriptions at 97.0%. The Vail CDP rate of 93.9% was approximately three percentage points behind. Despite their non-urban classification, these communities had the highest percentage of households with an internet subscription of all the Southern Arizona communities analyzed. Vail and Corona de Tucson are unique in that they are located just outside the Tucson urbanized boundary and have experienced substantial population growth since 2000. Additionally, they both have high levels of median household income, as illustrated along with all other communities in Figure 3.
Figure 3: Median Household Income (2017)
Of the non-urban areas, the town of Miami had the lowest percentage of households with internet subscriptions at 38.0%. Nearly all non-urban communities had a lower percentage of households with an internet subscription than the U.S. rate of 78.7%. On average, communities located in non-urban areas posted a lower rate of households with internet subscriptions than urban areas in Southern Arizona. The median percentage for urban areas was 78.2% while, for non-urban areas, the median was 70.9%. To explore the percentage of internet subscriptions for all non-urban areas see Figure 4.
Figure 4: Percent of Non-Urban Households with an Internet Subscription (2017)
Internet access is often correlated with income. Even within a community, households with higher income tend to have greater access to the internet. For example, in Arizona, 54.8% of households with income less than $20,000 had broadband internet. For households with income over $75,000, 93.4% had broadband. This pattern holds for all geographies regardless of urban or non-urban status.
Among the 41 communities studied here, the city of Maricopa had the highest percentage of broadband use for households with income less than $20,000 at 75.7%. The Vail CDP had the highest percentage of households with broadband in the $20,000 to $74,999 and the greater than $75,000 income ranges, with 93.7% and 98.8%, respectively. As discussed previously, Vail is a unique case among the non-urban communities because of the rapid growth it has experienced in recent years. With the rapid population growth and high median household income, Vail fares better in terms of internet access than some of the other non-urban areas.
On the other end of the scale, the town of Miami had the lowest percent of households with broadband in all three income ranges. For households with income less than $20,000, the rate of broadband use was only 23.7%. This rate increased by nearly 20 percentage points to 41.2% for households earning between $20,000 and $74,999. That is more than 30 percentage points lower than the state (78.1%) and the nation (75.3%). Further, households in Miami that earned over $75,000 had a rate of 55.0%, nearly 40 percentage points lower that the state rate of 93.4% and the national rate of 93.0%. Figure 5 illustrates broadband internet access by income level for all Southern Arizona communities.
Figure 5: Percent of Households with Broadband by Income (2017)
The types of devices that households use to gain access to the internet can provide insight into the level of internet access in a community. Figure 6 displays the percentage of households in each Southern Arizona community that have one or more computing devices. This includes desktops or laptops, smartphones, and tablets. In 2017, the town of Sahuarita had the highest percent of households with multiple computing devices at 96.5%, while the city of South Tucson posted the lowest at 61.9%. Of the 41 communities explored, 15 had less than 80.0% of households with one or more computing device. Each of these communities had median household incomes well below the state and the nation. In contrast, the town of Sahuarita had one of the highest levels of median household income among the 41 communities and the highest percentage of households with one or more computing device.
Figure 6: Percent of Households with One or More Computing Devices (2017)
Smartphones are computers as well as communication devices and, as Figure 7 shows, many households rely on them alone. In 2017, the town of Duncan had the highest share at 13.1%. The city of South Tucson had a high percentage as well at 10.0%. The town of Thatcher and the Ajo CDP followed closely at 9.8% and 9.3%, respectively. Several factors contribute to a region having a high percentage of households that use only smartphones as a computing device. Among others, these factors include a region’s level of median household income and the internet infrastructure available.6 For instance, the city of South Tucson posted a high percentage of households that use only smartphones for internet and it had the lowest income of the 41 communities in 2017 at $21,160 (see Figure 2).
Most non-urban areas had a high rate of households using only a smartphone as a computing device. There were 18 communities with rates less than that of the U.S. and the state (4.0%) and only four were non-urban areas. As discussed previously, non-urban areas are less likely to have as extensive internet infrastructure as urban areas. This non-urban status may result in residents simply using their smartphones to connect to the internet rather than having multiple computing devices. In fact, places like public libraries and dining establishments have become increasingly popular as a way for residents in non-urban areas to get fast and free Wi-Fi for their mobile devices.7
Figure 7: Percent of Households with Smartphone Only (2017)
How is it measured?
Computer and internet access data come from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), which is a nationwide rolling survey providing estimates for demographic, social, housing, and economic measures. The s began asking computer and internet access questions in 2013 and provides both one-year and five-year estimates. This article utilized the five-year estimates. The Census Bureau also provided the urban boundary maps used to determine urban and non-urban classifications for the Southern Arizona communities.
Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity. (2017, October) Report to the President of the United States, United States Department of Agriculture, https://www.usda.gov/sites/default/files/documents/rural-prosperity-report.pdf
Freeman, W. and Fletcher, J. (2018, November) USDA Partners with Communities to Bring High-Speed Broadband e-Connectivity Infrastructure to Rural Areas, Press Release, United States Department of Agriculture, https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2018/11/13/usda-partners-communities-bring-high-speed-broadband-e-connectivity
State Science and Technology Institute. (2019, January) Rural Broadband Emerging as Early Theme 2019, https://ssti.org/blog/rural-broadband-emerging-early-theme-2019
USDA Press (2018, December). USDA Launches New Program to Create High-Speed Internet e-Connectivity in Rural America, United States Department of Agriculture, https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2018/12/13/usda-launches-new-program-create-high-speed-internet-e-connectivity
2010 Census Urban and Rural Classification and Urban Area Criteria (2010), United States Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/geo/reference/ua/urban-rural-2010.html
Strover, S. (2018, January). Reaching rural America with broadband internet service, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/reaching-rural-america-with-broadband-internet-service-82488
Strover, S. (2018, January). Reaching rural America with broadband internet service, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/reaching-rural-america-with-broadband-internet-service-82488 ;Bleiberg, J. (2014, August). How McDonald's and Corporate America are Bringing Internet Access to Rural America, Brookings Institute, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/techtank/2014/08/21/how-mcdonalds-and-corporate-america-are-bringing-internet-access-to-rural-america/