Young girl in Appalachia works on laptop on the couch.

Digital Access Improves in Appalachia, Bridging Rural-Urban Divide

Recent data show large improvement in digital access for the Appalachian Region—especially in rural counties—despite a lag behind the nation.

In Appalachia, high-speed internet access and computer device ownership rates have increased more than for the nation as a whole in recent years.1 And while internet access still lags behind the rest of the United States, the digital divide between rural and urban Appalachia is narrowing.

These are among the findings from The Appalachian Region: A Data Overview From the 2018-2022 American Community Survey, a new report from PRB and the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). The 14th report in the annual “Chartbook” series is the first to include trend data for high-speed internet access and device ownership.

This year’s Chartbook uses 5-year American Community Survey (ACS) data from 2018-2022, with 2013-2017 data serving as a comparison for trends in the Region. Over half of the timeframe in the report is the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, covering the school and workplace closures that contributed to the surge in digital work, learning, and medical care.

Despite being increasingly essential to work, health care, education, and recreation, highspeed internet access is not a given in much of the nation. Millions of Americans still lack access to minimum internet speed or a computer device at home.2 People living in rural communities especially face challenges to accessing digital resources, as high-speed internet is often less available and less affordable than in urban areas.

This rural-urban digital divide has been a topic of discussion for many years, especially during the pandemic. The new Chartbook emphasizes the role of location and rurality in determining the digital resources of an American household, especially in the Appalachian Region.

The Appalachian Region Faces More Barriers to Digital Access Than the Rest of the Nation

“A lot of our areas [in Appalachian Ohio] have no broadband and homes have no cellular service,” Tom Reid, President of Reid Consulting Group, told Ohio Capital Journal. Reid works with Connecting Appalachia, a consortium of local governments, regional economic development councils, and industry professionals focused on improving broadband internet access in Appalachian Ohio.

But Appalachian Ohio isn’t the only part of the Region facing service challenges. Just 84.5 percent of all Appalachian households have broadband (high-speed) internet—nearly four percentage points lower than the national average. In Appalachian North Carolina, residents have noted challenges accessing telehealth services, a resource with potential to improve health care access for many Americans, due to the unavailability of high-speed internet.

Inadequate internet is not the only barrier to digital access for Appalachian residents. Device ownership was three percentage points lower in 2018-2022 for households in the Region (90.8%) compared with the rest of the nation. And nearly 73 percent of Appalachian households owned a desktop or laptop computer, over six percentage points lower than the national average. In addition, the Appalachian portion of all states except Alabama and Georgia reported a lower share of households with one or more devices than the non-Appalachian portion of each state.

Affordability—and rising device costs—also matters. The average cost of internet in the United States is just under $70 per month, with average one-time equipment fees exceeding $125. Meanwhile, the average cost of a smartphone rose from $567 to $724 between 2018 and 2022.

These entry costs to digital access can be insurmountable for many. The median household income in the Appalachian region is more than $13,000 less than the U.S. median. And the income gap for rural Appalachians is even larger; the median income in Appalachia’s rural counties is more than $26,000 lower than the national median. Given the income disparities facing the Region, for many households, cost may rival infrastructure as a barrier to digital access.

Rural Counties Have Less Digital Access Than Urban Counterparts

Appalachia’s rural counties had the lowest shares of households with at least one electronic device and with high-speed internet in 2018-2022. Meanwhile, large metro counties had the highest share of households with adequate digital access.

Comparing counties along a spectrum, from large metropolitan counties to rural ones, the share of households with one or more devices and the share with high-speed internet decrease as counties become more rural (Figure 1). The difference in digital access between urban and rural communities is notable; in Appalachia’s large metropolitan counties, the share of households with high-speed internet access was 6.5 percentage points higher than in rural counties, and device ownership rates were 9.6 percentage points higher.

Figure 1. Appalachian residents living in less densely populated counties have less access to computer devices and broadband internet
Share of households in Appalachia with adequate digital access by county type


Bar chart comparing percent of households with one or more computer devices to percent of households with a broadband internet subscription in metropolitan areas compared to rural areas. Both numbers are higher in large metros (93.4% and 88.8% respectively) compared to rural (86.9% and 79.2%).
Note: Large metros are defined as areas with a population greater than one million people. Small metros are defined as areas with a population less than one million people.
Source: 2018-2022 5-Year American Community Survey Data.

Digital Access Is Improving in Appalachia, and the Rural-Urban Gap is Narrowing

As technology continues to evolve and the world becomes more digital, equitable digital access is a pressing issue. While the Appalachian Region has a smaller share of households with at least one device compared to the entire nation, the Region saw larger improvements in digital access over the study period. Device ownership in Appalachia grew by 8.6 percentage points since 2013-2017, nearly two percentage points more than the national increase. And the share of households with high-speed internet rose 12.2 percentage points since 2013-2017, also two percentage points more than for the entire nation.

Digital equity includes equal access to internet and computer devices in rural and urban areas. Rural counties in the Region showed greater improvements in device ownership and high-speed internet access than metropolitan and metro-adjacent counties. This signifies that while digital access is still lagging in these counties, there has been improvement in bridging the digital gap between urban and rural households.

Between 2013-2017 and 2018-2022, the computer device ownership gap between large metropolitan and rural counties in Appalachia narrowed by 4.6 percentage points (from a gap of 11.1 percentage points to a gap of 6.5 percentage points). Similarly, the rural-urban gap in high-speed internet access in 2018-2022 was 9.6 percentage points, more than 4 percentage points lower than the gap between large metropolitan and rural Appalachian counties in 2013-2017.

How Appalachia Could Build on Its Progress

These findings provide significant insight on digital access in Appalachia. As technology continues to evolve and becomes more essential to work, school, and health care, parts of the nation that fall behind in access need continued attention. Federal programs such as the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program (BEAD) provide funding opportunities to increase broadband internet access throughout the United States.

Specific to Appalachia, ARC’s first ARISE grantee, Connect Humanity, is using nearly $6.3 million for the Appalachian Digital Equity Accelerator. This project is working to improve digital equity in 11 Appalachian states receiving BEAD funding. Project participants work with technical consultants and other key stakeholders to create connectivity plans that serve each community’s unique needs. From there, community leaders connect with grant writers and internet service providers to install these plans.

This year’s ARC Chartbook data reveal that while Appalachia faces challenges in digital equity, the Region has recently shown large improvements. Furthermore, the rural-urban digital divide in the Region has narrowed since 2017-2013. With this continued progress, the future is promising for digital well-being in the Appalachian Region.

Learn more about demographics, education, health, and employment in the Appalachian Region.


  1. Computer devices include desktop or laptop computers, smartphones, tablets, and other devices. For this analysis, high-speed internet access is self-reported in the American Community Survey by respondents indicating that they have broadband service such as cable, fiber optic, or DSL.
  2. The FCC increased the benchmark for high-speed internet from 25/3 Mbps to 100/20 Mbps in March 2024.