SALT LAKE CITY — When they're at home, Utahns are more connected to the internet than the nation as a whole, new census estimates show, but the numbers also point to a stark digital divide.
About 84 percent of Utah households had some kind of internet subscription in the past five years, hovering above the national rate of 78 percent, according to figures released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
"It's really been a priority of the state to have a significant broadband infrastructure," said Natalie Gochnour, director of the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
As a result, many of Utah's rural homes are more wired than their counterparts across the country, but the wealth of Wi-Fi and other internet services does not extend to the state's southeast corner. About half of homes in San Juan County have a contract with an internet provider.
On weekday evenings, visitors can find several faces aglow in a dozen or more cars parked at a senior center and at nearby tribal chapter houses in the vast county, said Elsie Dee, a member of San Juan School Board. Those in the parking lots log on to Wi-Fi after hours to do homework or other online tasks, she said, because a good connection is hard to come by on the nearby Navajo reservation.
"A lot of these families don't have access to electricity," Dee said.
At her home, a satellite dish allows her to email fellow board members or do her advocacy work for students with disabilities. But the connection is slow and faulty.
"It's just so hard sometimes," she said.
Dee has spotted teams scoping out the area for broadband capability in the past, she said. And she believes better connectivity is a priority for Navajo and local government leaders, but she's found no affordable option so far, aside from the satellite dish, she said.
Similar to San Juan County, those living on tribal lands across the nation had broadband subscriptions at a rate of 53 percent, the estimates show. No matter where they live, roughly 2 in 3 Native Americans have broadband, compared with 82 percent of the rest of Americans.
San Juan, where just over half of the 4,000 or so households are connected via subscriptions, has long been on the radar of state officials, said Ginger Chinn, managing director for Utah's Urban and Rural Business Services, a division of the the Governor's Office of Economic Development. The county known for its towering red rock formations and expansive mesas is nearly 10 times the size of Salt Lake County.
Sheer size and its sparse and widely distributed population create "significant challenges" for internet infrastructure development in the area, Chinn said.
It's a different story when the whole state is considered.
Utah ranked high for its share of homes with subscriptions for internet, trailing behind New Hampshire — at 85 percent — and lined up with Washington and Colorado — both with 84 percent — according to a Deseret News analysis of the figures. Mississippi is at the bottom of the list at nearly 65 percent.
Utah's top-five status is no surprise to Chinn.
She said the now-defunct Utah Broadband Outreach Center spent years supporting the buildout of internet infrastructure across the state and particularly in rural areas. While federal funding for the program dried up in 2015, Utah continued supporting the center out of its own coffers until June of this year.
"In Utah, we really saw broadband expansion as an infrastructure issue … and as a business and job growth opportunity," Chinn said.
The new American Community Survey figures, the first to pinpoint Utahns' connectivity in fine detail, consider five years of data from 2013 to 2017. According to the numbers, three Utah counties have household connectivity rates in excess of 90 percent, 15 counties are above 80 percent and 12 are in the 70s.
In rural Carbon and Emery counties, for example, more than 3 in 4 homes pay into subscription plans.
That ratio is part of the reason that policy experts and local leaders hope to transform the longtime coal-producing areas into an eastern offshoot of a burgeoning high-tech corridor near Point of the Mountain.
"We were very quick to realize that coal country, as we call it, had as good or better broadband than places right in Salt Lake City's Avenues," said Gochnour, the economist at the University of Utah.
The details are still being worked out, but Gochnour and other members of the newly formed Coal Country Strike Team envision old buildings there converting into new hubs of entrepreneurship, with ties to the tech companies 90 miles to the west.
In the northern part of the state, the new figures call attention to another rustic community about an hour from Salt Lake City.
While the most-connected communities across the country are predictably more urban, Morgan County bucks the trend. In the mountainous area where median household income nears $68,000, those in more than 4 in 5 households shop, work and play games online through their contracts with internet providers.
The glut may be due in part to open-access internet networks, like those being built by Utah's Utopia Fiber. The Utopia system, driven primarily by contracts with municipal governments, puts ultra-high-speed fiber networks in place, much like a traditional utility provider, and allows multiple internet service providers access to the lines.
Customers on the networks get the advantage of being able to choose the provider that best suits their needs, and the Utopia lines can accommodate download speeds up to an incredible 10 gigabytes. Chief Marketing Officer Kim McKinley believes Utah's high performance has been fueled by two major factors.
"A lot of Utah cities have taken the initiative to view the internet as a basic infrastructure requirement," McKinley said. "We also have one of the highest levels of competition among companies that are building infrastructure," she added, noting that Utopia, Google and Comcast are among the competitors.
While the bulk of Utahns with internet at home have subscriptions for cable, fiber optic or DSL — and some opt for dial-up and satellite — a small number connect through other services or alternatives such as Wi-Fi hotspots, the data show.