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Rural counties with more broadband tend to do better in 2020 census, study finds

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Although most of the country’s rural counties lost population from 2010 to 2020, our analysis of new census data shows that rural counties with better broadband access tended to cope better with population changes than those in the country. counties that did not have access.

We cannot say whether broadband access caused the population shift or if it was the other way around – counties with growing populations may have attracted more broadband service. But it is clear that there is a relationship between broadband and population change, according to our study.

Factors affecting the rural population

Since the census released its 2020 county-level figures in August, much has been written about how the country’s population has changed from 2010 to 2020. We know that large metropolitan areas lead the way for overall population growth, while about two-thirds of non-metropolitan (rural) counties have shrunk. Rural counties have experienced an overall population loss of about 280,000 people over the past decade. We also know that some types of rural counties fared worse than others: nearly 80% of counties dependent on agriculture lost population, while only 40% of counties dependent on recreation lost population. did.

Academic research has long told us that a variety of factors influence the growth of the non-metropolitan population, including natural amenities, economic dependence (like the categories for agriculture or recreation mentioned above), and proximity to a large city. But we’ve also heard a lot (both for quite some time and more recently) on the importance of broadband access in rural areas. This is all the more true as we continue to face the pandemic. So we asked ourselves, are rural counties with relatively better broadband access in the early 2010s doing better with population growth?

Fortunately, statistics give us a way to determine which factors are most important in explaining a particular outcome. It’s called regression analysis, and a lot social science researchers (like us) use it to find those important factors – and to advocate for policies that focus on them. In our case, we are interested in trying to explain the factors influencing the population change between 2010 and 2020. We have several variables that we know about should have an impact: the base population (2010), the economic dependency categories, the presence of natural amenities, and proximity to a metropolitan area. We also have a hypothesis: that rural counties with better broadband access in the early years of the 2010s have been more resilient to population changes. Fortunately, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (and later the Federal Communications Commission) started data collection in the early 2010s which can be used to determine the percentage of county residents who have had access to different broadband speeds.

So we set out to create a dataset of 3,142 US counties with each of these variables included. We then performed a regression analysis to see which of these variables was more strongly associated with the change in the population 2010-2020. If broadband has been found to be “statistically significant”, we can conclude that it has a significant relationship with the evolution of the population.

The regression results in the table below show that most of the variables we included had the expected relationship with population change. For example, a county classified as dependent on recreation experienced a 2.9% higher rate of population change than a county of similar size without a designation of recreation. Counties dependent on manufacturing or public employment recorded 1.1 to 1.5% decreases in population change compared to otherwise similar counties. Convenience and proximity to the metro are also important – higher scores on the ERS amenity index are associated with positive population change, and each additional kilometer from a metropolitan area is associated with a decline in the population. Counties that started with larger populations in 2010 also had higher growth rates during the 2010-20 period. Surprisingly, agricultural dependence and mining dependence were not significant in predicting lower growth rates – but this may be because many of these counties also had lower populations in 2010, amenity scores lower and / or were further from metropolitan areas.

Proof that broadband availability is important

But what about broadband access? Even after including all of these other factors, there is strong evidence that early broadband availability was important. The results show that as more residents had access to broadband as defined by the FCC in 2011, the county’s population grew nine years later. (FCC defines broadband as having internet speeds of at least 25 megabits per second [Mbps] download / 3 Mbps upload, often expressed as 25/3.)

Giving a firm figure on the potential impact of broadband requires a little more math. Consider two identical rural counties, the only difference being that County A had broadband to 50% of its residents in 2011, while County B had only 10% with access. In this case County A is expected to experience a 1.0% increase in population over County B [(0.026)*(0.50 – 0.10) = 0.01]. A 1.0% increase in the population is a big deal, considering that the total change in the non-metropolitan population was only -0.6%.

Most counties have improved their broadband situation over the 2010s, as shown in the graph at the top of this article. Broadband access has grown over the decade for both types of counties – those that have lost population and those that have gained. But the importance of broadband access has steadily increased – another regression shows that the broadband coefficient doubles to 0.052 if the 2015 availability is used.

Other models that only include rural counties or that use rural-urban continuum codes instead of distance measurement had similar results. An interesting finding is that access to faster broadband speeds (100 Mbps) showed an even stronger relationship with population growth during this period.

However, the data does not tell us who caused what. In other words: is good broadband access in rural areas cause Has higher population growth, or faster population growth in some rural areas, enabled them to gain better broadband access? The tools we use here simply show the correlation between population change and broadband after taking other factors into account. And the bottom line is that better rural broadband access seems to be an important feature.

Brian whitacre is Professor and Neustadt Chair in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University. Roberto Gallardo is the director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development.


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