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Who Relies Most on Cellular Data to Access the Internet?

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The COVID-19 pandemic will have many lasting effects on society, culture, and the economy. But one of the most significant changes is the world’s increased dependence on the internet.

While internet access has been an important part of modern life for several decades, COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of internet technology in several ways.

  • More K-12 schools and colleges have turned to online learning when faced with COVID outbreaks.
  • Large numbers of workers have permanently shifted to working from home at least part-time.
  • Ecommerce, online communications, streaming platforms, and other online products and services have exploded in popularity.

Internet Access Disparities

However, this rapid transition has left some parts of the population behind, exacerbating disparities in internet access that experts refer to as the digital divide. Communities and individuals without access to reliable internet have less ability to work, learn, shop, and communicate online.

While smartphones, tablets, and other devices with cellular data have become commonplace and allow people to access the web, these connections are usually slower and less reliable than high-quality internet service.

Disparities Demographics

Disparities in whether and how people are able to access the internet break down on demographic lines. One of these differences is simply generational.

Increasingly, there is a divergence between younger and older adults in terms of reliance on cellular data for internet access. Nearly one in three adults aged 18 to 29 (a group that came of age as smartphones and similar technologies were becoming ubiquitous) report that they rely on cellular data for internet access, more than twice as high as any other age cohort.

But internet access is more frequently limited by household resources. Those with lower incomes tend to have a difficult time accessing the internet either because service is unaffordable or their communities do not have the same infrastructure available in wealthier, more developed areas.

Households earning under $30,000 per year are much likelier than higher-earning households to rely on cellular data for internet access. Of these households, 27% report doing so.

Young and low-income adults rely heavily on cellular data for internet access

Government Efforts

To address these challenges, policymakers have emphasized expanded access to internet infrastructure in their response to the pandemic. Two federal COVID-19 relief packages, the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan, included billions of dollars in flexible funds for state and local governments, and many states and localities have used their allocations to build out broadband infrastructure.

More recently, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal passed and signed into law in November 2021 included $65 billion for broadband internet, with a goal of expanding reliable high-speed internet to millions of Americans who currently lack access. This is by far the largest federal investment in digital infrastructure in US history.

Access Issues Biggest in South

Many of the locations most likely to benefit from these investments are rural states with lower household incomes. These are the areas where internet infrastructure is unavailable or residents are unable to afford costs.

The states with the highest reliance on cellular data for internet access are primarily located in the South, led by Mississippi at 20.1%, Arkansas at 17.4%, and Oklahoma at 17.1%. These are also among the states where residents are least likely to have any internet access at all.

Southern states are most likely to rely on cellular data for internet access

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At the metro level, household incomes and poverty rates similarly show a relationship to reliance on cellular data or an inability to access the internet generally. The locations where more people are using cellular data have relatively low incomes and higher poverty rates. In some of these communities, more than one in four residents can only access the internet using cellular data.

Data

To identify the locations where residents rely exclusively on cellular data for internet access, researchers at HotDog.com used data from the US Census Bureau to calculate the percentage of households whose only internet connection was through a cellular data plan.

These households lacked other forms of internet access, such as broadband, dial-up, or satellite. Researchers also calculated the percentage of households without any access to the internet, median household income, and the poverty rate. To improve relevance, only locations with 100,000 residents or more were included.

Small and midsize metros whose residents rely on cellular data for internet

Large Metros Whose Residents Rely on Cellular Data for Internet

Here are the metros where residents rely on cellular data to access the web and stream.

Dallas, Texas
Photo Credit: Charl W Folscher / Shutterstock

15. Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX

  • Percentage of households with cellular data only: 11.1%
  • Percentage of households without any internet access: 8.2%
  • Median household income: $71,400
  • Poverty rate: 10.5%

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Kansas City, Missouri
Photo Credit: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

14. Kansas City, MO-KS

  • Percentage of households with cellular data only: 11.2%
  • Percentage of households without any internet access: 8.3%
  • Median household income: $69,000
  • Poverty rate: 10.3%
Memphis, Tennessee
Photo Credit: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

13. Memphis, TN-MS-AR

  • Percentage of households with cellular data only: 11.4%
  • Percentage of households without any internet access: 16.9%
  • Median household income: $54,500
  • Poverty rate: 15.4%
Indianapolis, Indiana
Photo Credit: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

12. Indianapolis-Carmel-Anderson, IN

  • Percentage of households with cellular data only: 11.4%
  • Percentage of households without any internet access: 11.4%
  • Median household income: $62,000
  • Poverty rate: 10.5%
Salta Lake City, Utah
Photo Credit: Maciej Bledowski / Shutterstock

11. Salt Lake City, UT

  • Percentage of households with cellular data only: 11.4%
  • Percentage of households without any internet access: 4.7%
  • Median household income: $79,000
  • Poverty rate: 8.6%
San Antonio, TX
Photo Credit: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

10. San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX

  • Percentage of households with cellular data only: 11.5%
  • Percentage of households without any internet access: 10.8%
  • Median household income: $60,600
  • Poverty rate: 13.5%
Buffalo, NY
Photo Credit: Felix Lipov / Shutterstock

9. Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls, NY

  • Percentage of households with cellular data only: 11.6%
  • Percentage of households without any internet access: 11.0%
  • Median household income: $58,800
  • Poverty rate: 13.1%
Houston, Texas
Photo Credit: RaulCano / Shutterstock

8. Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX

  • Percentage of households with cellular data only: 11.8%
  • Percentage of households without any internet access: 9.3%
  • Median household income: $69,000
  • Poverty rate: 12.9%
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Photo Credit: Alexandr Junek Imaging / Shutterstock

7. Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC

  • Percentage of households with cellular data only: 12.0%
  • Percentage of households without any internet access: 9.3%
  • Median household income: $68,000
  • Poverty rate: 10.6%
New Orleans, LA
Photo Credit: evenfh / Shutterstock

6. New Orleans-Metairie, LA

  • Percentage of households with cellular data only: 12.1%
  • Percentage of households without any internet access: 14.0%
  • Median household income: $55,000
  • Poverty rate: 16.4%
Tucson, Arizona
Photo Credit: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

5. Tucson, AZ

  • Percentage of households with cellular data only: 12.7%
  • Percentage of households without any internet access: 9.6%
  • Median household income: $55,980
  • Poverty rate: 13.8%
Jacksonville, Florida
Photo Credit: GagliardiPhotography / Shutterstock

4. Jacksonville, FL

  • Percentage of households with cellular data only: 13.8%
  • Percentage of households without any internet access: 7.7%
  • Median household income: $64,800
  • Poverty rate: 11.5%
Louisville, Kentucky
Photo Credit: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

3. Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN

  • Percentage of households with cellular data only: 14.6%
  • Percentage of households without any internet access: 12.7%
  • Median household income: $60,400
  • Poverty rate: 11.9%
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Photo Credit: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

2. Oklahoma City, OK

  • Percentage of households with cellular data only: 16.1%
  • Percentage of households without any internet access: 10.1%
  • Median household income: $60,000
  • Poverty rate: 13.1%
Birmingham, Alabama
Photo Credit: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

1. Birmingham-Hoover, AL

  • Percentage of households with cellular data only: 16.4%
  • Percentage of households without any internet access: 12.5%
  • Median household income: $57,100
  • Poverty rate: 14.0%

Methodology and Detailed Findings

The data used in this study is from the US Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample.

To identify the locations where residents rely exclusively on cellular data for internet access, researchers calculated the percentage of households whose only internet connection was through a cellular data plan. These households lacked other forms of internet access, such as broadband, dial-up, or satellite. Researchers also calculated the percentage of households without any access to the internet, median household income, and the poverty rate.

To improve relevance, only locations with 100,000 residents or more were included. Additionally, metropolitan areas were grouped into cohorts based on population: small (100,000–349,999), midsize (350,000–999,999), and large (1,000,000 or more).

Photo Credit: Pheelings media / Shutterstock

By Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer specializing in technology, business, and film. You can see his writing on low-budget and "weird" film at Psychotronic Review — and many other places.

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