A new analysis from the University of Chicago found big differences in internet connectivity across the city, with some neighborhoods reporting more than a third of households offline.
Researchers are now working to collect their own data to determine internet performance in neighborhoods, hoping to influence the distribution of $65 billion in federal funds to expand broadband access.
Across the city, about 80 percent of households have internet access, but researchers from the university’s Internet Equity Initiative found a difference of almost 40 percentage points in connectivity levels between certain neighborhoods.
In the most connected area, the Loop, more than 97% of households have internet access. This is followed by Lake View and the Near North and South sides at 94%. But in Burnside, that number is below 58% and in West Englewood, below 62%.
Now that researchers have determined that access isn’t uniform across the city, they can dig deeper into speed, performance and infrastructure gaps, said Nick Feamster, research director at the Data Science Institute. and Senior Researcher of the Internet Equity Initiative.
“With better answers to all of these sub-questions, we can then start thinking about solutions and investments, … really trying to go hyper-local,” Feamster said. “Because the problem, although it is common to speak of it as a national problem, is in fact a local problem. It varies so much across the city, and there’s no data on it so far.
For the next phase of the study, researchers will work with volunteers in 75 households and in 30 community areas, with a particular focus on Logan Square and the South Shore.
The volunteers agreed to install a small device on their routers to measure how quickly data is flowing in and out of the household.
Internet performance has become critically important in an increasingly virtual world, said Nicole Marwell, associate professor at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice and senior fellow at the Internet Equity Initiative.
“What does it mean for a person’s lived experience if their internet is good or if their internet is bad?” asked Marwell. “For a child trying to do remote schooling, that might mean the teacher keeps dabbing and they disengage from the lesson and decide to just pack it up, and then that’s it. school that day.”
Chicago public schools faced a huge hurdle to switch to online learning at the start of the pandemic, when nearly 100,000 families lacked internet access. Mayor Lightfoot has turned to hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin and some of Chicago’s biggest foundations for funds to help students connect.
In November 2021, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, securing $65 billion in new funding to expand broadband access nationwide.
States have been working to figure out how that funding will be allocated, and Feamster and Marwell hope their new data will help guide that decision-making process.
“A big part of how this federal money has been structured is that it’s supposed to be spent only in ‘unserved’ places, which according to existing data essentially doesn’t include anywhere in the city of Chicago. “, said Marwell. “And yet, we know that there are many variations in how the Internet works.”
Households involved in the pilot project must participate for at least one month, but many have already agreed to continue data collection for six months.
Still, the researchers are looking for more households to take part in the study, hoping to reach residents of all 77 neighborhoods.
“This is an area where we have the potential to see really significant social change,” Feamster said. “Sixty-five billion dollars is about to rain down from the federal government. It is not predetermined how this is going to be spent. Our city officials, our state officials are working to make sure we see that money and it’s invested wisely…but if you’re not in the data, it’s going to be very difficult for your community to see that investment . ”
People interested in participating in the study can complete a form on Data Science Institutes website.