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Poor Areas Of Cities Have Really Terrible Mobile Service

Just another part of the digital divide: If you're poor, your phone doesn't work as well.

Poor Areas Of Cities Have Really Terrible Mobile Service

Photo: Alina Zamogilnykh via Shutterstock

Trying to get a good cell signal? If you live in a low-income neighborhood, you may be stuck with two bad choices: live with bad service at the same high prices or pay a premium to buy specialized equipment that pays your way out of the problem.

In the U.S., federal and state governments are actively working to reduce the digital divide and bring Internet access to poor and rural areas. But smartphone Internet service—through cell towers rather than fixed-line broadband—is increasingly becoming the most important means of Internet access for young and low-income populations—and it's not very good.

That rural areas have bad cell coverage isn’t a surprise to anyone who loses their signal on a long road trip. It’s hard to get telecommunications companies to invest in infrastructure in sparsely populated places. But according to a new study from researchers at Cornell University and the U.K.’s Imperial College Business School, it turns out that even within cities, there are systematic disparities in mobile service quality, and these are divided along income lines.

The researchers, looking at crowdsourced data through a mobile signal strength app, found that compared to affluent neighborhoods, low-income regions have 15% less coverage and two fewer telecom base stations installed for an equal number of potential subscribers. Low-income subscribers tend to live at least three times further from a base station, they found.

It’s not shocking that telecom operators invest less in poor neighborhoods, but it’s the first time this kind of analysis has been done to prove that they do so. (One reason is that telecoms treat most information related to base station locations and network performance as trade secrets.)

"We think the data reflect profit-maximizing business decisions by telecom operators who expand network and quality of coverage in areas where it is the most profitable—highly populated and affluent neighborhoods have higher willingness to pay and thus are more likely to subscribe to premium services," says Aija Leiponen, an associate professor at Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

The study also looked at the use of femtocells, which are specialized equipment that can be installed at a customer's expense that boosts signal strength in a small area through a connection to a fixed-line broadband network. They found wealthier pockets in poorer areas were compensating for poor service by using femtocells, which indicated a demand for cell signal that wasn’t being met.

The authors said more work is needed to figure out whether the disparity warrants an intervention through government policy—-and how costly it would be for operators to provide equal service (with fixed line service, telecommunications companies are required to hook up all residents but they can pass higher costs onto customers). Another option could be subsidies for communities that require femtocells to boost the quality of their service, she says.

"I think we need to study in more detail whether mobile Internet access is indeed essential for lower-income households to find economic opportunities and critical societal information," says Leiponen.

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