Major Internet Access Differences Found in Chicago in New Analysis

A new analysis by the University of Chicago has revealed huge disparities in internet connectivity across the city, with some neighborhoods reporting that more than a third of households are offline.

Researchers are now working to collect their own data to determine how the Internet is performing in different neighborhoods, hoping to influence how $65 billion in federal funds is distributed to expand broadband access.

Across the city, about 80% of households have internet access, but researchers at the university’s Internet Equity Initiative found a difference of nearly 40 percentage points in connection levels between certain neighborhoods.

In the most connected area, the Loop, more than 97% of households have internet access. That’s followed by Lake View and the near north and south sides at 94%. But in Burnside it’s less than 58% and in West Englewood less than 62%.

Percentages of Chicago households with Internet access, by neighborhood, according to data from the American Community Survey (2015-2019) and City of Chicago Data Portal.

Percentages of Chicago households with Internet access, by neighborhood, according to data from the American Community Survey (2015-2019) and the City of Chicago Data Portal.

University of Chicago Data Science Institute

Now that researchers have determined that access is not uniform across the city, they can dig deeper into differences in speed, performance and infrastructure, said Nick Feamster, faculty director of research at the Data Science Institute and principal investigator of the Internet Equity Initiative.

“If we get better answers to all those sub-questions, we can start thinking about solutions and investments, … really trying to go hyper-local,” Feamster said. “Because, although it is popular to talk about as a national problem, in reality the problem is a local problem. It varies so much in the city, and there is no data on that until now.”

For the next step of the study, researchers will work with volunteers in 75 households and in 30 community areas, with a particular focus on Logan Square and South Shore.

A heat map of where the Internet Equity Initiative study currently collects household-level data on Internet performance.

A heat map of where the Internet Equity Initiative study currently collects household-level data on Internet performance.

University of Chicago Data Science Institute

Volunteers have agreed to install a small device on their routers to measure how quickly data enters and leaves the household.

Internet performance has become critical in an increasingly virtual world, said Nicole Marwell, an associate professor in the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice and a principal investigator for the Internet Equity Initiative.

“What does it mean for a person’s experience if their internet is good or if their internet is underperforming?” asked Marwell. “For a kid trying to do school remotely, it could mean the teacher keeps buffering and they break away from class and decide to just pack it up and then that’s it for school for the day.”

Chicago Public Schools faced a huge hurdle centered on online learning at the start of the pandemic, when nearly 100,000 families had no Internet access. Mayor Lightfoot turned to hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin and some of Chicago’s largest foundations to secure funding to get students online.

In November 2021, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, securing $65 billion in new funding to expand broadband access across the country.

States have been working to determine how that funding will be split, and Feamster and Marwell hope their new data will help with that decision-making process.

“A lot of the way this federal money is structured is that it’s supposed to be spent only in places that are ‘unserviced,’ which, according to the existing data, basically doesn’t include anywhere in the city of Chicago,” Marwell said. “And yet we know that there is a lot of variation in how well people’s internet works.”

The households involved in the pilot must participate for at least a month, but many have already committed to continue the data collection for another six months.

Still, researchers are looking for more households to participate in the study, hoping to reach residents in all 77 neighborhoods.

“This is one area where we have the potential to see some really meaningful social changes,” Feamster said. “Sixty-five billion dollars is about to rain from the federal government. It is not predetermined how that will be spent. Our city officials, our state officials are working to make sure that we see that money, and that it’s invested wisely… but if you’re not in the data, it’s going to be really hard for your community to see that investment. †

Interested parties who want to participate in the study can fill in: a form at the Data Science Institutes’ website.

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