Despite the Internet’s ever-growing social and economic relevance, a sizable number of Americans in select cities still aren’t connected.

For the first time, the Census Bureau collected data measuring Internet adoption in its most recent annual American Community Survey. The results depict disparities in connectivity and the current state of Internet connectivity at the local level, estimating numbers of households with access and how residents are connecting.

Nationwide, 79 percent of American households in 2013 had some form of Internet access --including mobile broadband and slower connections. Nearly all houses are hooked up to the Internet in some cities, but in other large jurisdictions, more than a third of households remain without access.

Cities recording the highest Internet adoption rates were predominantly wealthy enclaves characterized by tech-savvy residents. An estimated 96 percent of households in the Denver suburb of Centennial, Colo., had Internet access -- the highest nationally of all cities with at least 100,000 residents.

Cary, N.C., another relatively wealthy city in the tech-heavy Research Triangle area, posted a similarly high Internet adoption rate.

Cary has long been far ahead other parts of the country. Back in 2000, three-quarters of residents there already had established home Internet access, according to city surveys. Adoption further accelerated in the early 2000s when the region’s primary Internet provider rebuilt its local network, said Susan Moran, the city’s public information director.

Places like Cary with high density and strong Internet adoption tend to attract the most private infrastructure investment and competition. Earlier this year, Google announced it was exploring bringing its highly-touted fiber-optic network to the Raleigh-Durham metro area. “People who make their homes and do business here really drive expansion of service,” Moran said.

College towns like College Station, Texas, and Tempe, Ariz., also registered high connectivity rates. Of the largest jurisdictions, San Jose, San Diego and Seattle recorded the highest adoption rates, at about 88 percent.

To a large degree, Internet adoption mirrors a city’s demographics. Poorer households might not sign up because of the cost. Whites also report higher Internet adoption than black and Hispanic households. Age is another pronounced demographic divides. About 64 percent of the 65-and-over population reported having Internet subscriptions, compared to 81 percent for the rest of the population.

There are several barriers to Internet adoption. Some perceive the Internet as irrelevant to their lives and just don’t see a need for it. Others can’t afford to pay for service or a computer. There’s also a lack of digital literacy around how to use the Internet, a problem that’s particularly relevant for the elderly population. Internet availability is also often a problem in rural and remote areas. Some poorer urban neighborhoods may have insufficient providers offering reliable service at higher speeds.

A quarter or more of households are without Internet connections -- including dial-up service -- in 80 of the 296 larger cities reviewed. The Census survey found the lowest adoption rates in El Monte, Calif., Hartford Conn., Laredo, Texas, and Santa Maria, Calif. -- all with less than 60 percent of households connected. Not surprisingly, many cities with lower connection rates suffered years of economic decline. Just 60 percent of Detroit households, for example, were connected.

Basic Internet adoption rates only tell part of the story, though. Many connected households remain saddled with slow speeds that limit the Internet’s usefulness.

The Census survey does not measure respondents’ connection speeds. It does, though, record connection types, which can provide rough approximations for numbers of high-speed connections. Actual download and upload speeds vary greatly; even DSL services are advertised as high-speed in many areas. Typically, though, cable and fiber connections offer the fastest speeds.

Here’s a table showing cities with the largest shares of households reporting Internet subscriptions classified as cable modem, fiber or having two or more fixed broadband types:

Local Jurisdiction Total share of all households Cable Internet share Fiber Internet share 2 or more fixed broadband share
Cary, N.C. 78.6% 64.8% 6.0% 7.7%
Plano, Texas 77.2% 25.5% 30.0% 21.7%
Thousand Oaks, Calif. 76.9% 34.4% 24.9% 17.7%
Irvine, Calif. 76.1% 62.4% 2.8% 10.9%
Temecula, Calif. 75.4% 23.0% 40.3% 12.2%
Murrieta, Calif. 75.2% 21.1% 43.1% 11.1%
Stamford, Conn. 74.0% 65.8% 1.7% 6.5%
Bellevue, Wash. 73.8% 61.1% 4.0% 8.7%
Virginia Beach, Va. 73.6% 48.9% 15.5% 9.2%
Arlington, Va. 73.5% 31.8% 23.0% 18.7%
Source: Governing calculations of 2013 American Community Survey data. NOTE: Figures do not include households with access that do not have Internet subscriptions.

It’s difficult to know from the Census data how many residents are connecting at faster speeds. Defining what constitutes “high speed” or broadband Internet also isn’t universally agreed upon. Earlier this year, the FCC proposed updating its definition for broadband service -- currently downloads speeds of at least 4 Mbps and upload speeds of 1 Mbps -- to download speeds of at least 10 Mbps. AT&T, Verizon and other telecoms met the agency’s proposal with resistance.

Providers report data to the FCC tallying numbers of household connections. (See our map for updated FCC data at the county level)

James Brooks, director of city solutions for the National League of Cities, said local leaders should assess market demand and how companies might help fulfill a government’s internal needs as well. “Cities have learned a lot from early franchise agreements,” he said. “Municipalities need not be afraid of their private sector partners.”

Cities like Chattanooga, Tenn., and Santa Monica, Calif., maintain their own municipal broadband networks. Brooks said municipal networks help to fill gaps in areas with poor service, but they’re not practical for every market.

Twenty states have passed laws restricting municipal networks or banning them outright, at times resulting from telecoms’ lobbying efforts in state legislatures. Critics of the laws include FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who has suggested that they limit competition.

“Throughout the country where we have seen competitive broadband providers come in to a market, prices have gone down and broadband speeds have gone up. No wonder incumbent broadband providers want to legislate rather than innovate,” he wrote in a blog post in June.

Colorado’s preemption, different than most other state laws, allows for voters to approve local networks in their areas. Seven Colorado jurisdictions responded earlier this month by passing measures authorizing their local governments to offer high-speed Internet. Wheeler has also hinted that the FCC may soon move to preempt state laws that limit or ban community broadband networks.

City Internet Adoption Rates

Internet adoption rates (all connection types) for cities and incorporated Census-designated places with at least 100,000 residents are shown below:

SOURCE: Governing calculations of 2013 American Community Survey one-year estimates

Interpreting the Data

  • Estimates refer to percentages of total households, not individuals.
  • Total adoption rates include all connection types and households reporting Internet access without subscriptions.
  • Note than some smaller jurisdictions have higher margins of error. The Census Bureau published data for other localities not shown with fewer residents, but one-year estimates for these jurisdictions aren't as reliable.

Read about broadband adoption in rural areas in the November issue of Governing.