The largest ever study of the internet marketplace in America has just been released by the Commerce Department and the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The report, called “Exploring The Digital Nation” is based on a survey of over 50,000 households, done in October 2009 with the use of supplemental Census information. That would make the information relatively old in the digital age, but the The Commerce Department clearly believed that it was worth publishing anyway. One of the purposes of the report is to show that there is a “digital divide” in America that favors the wealthy, the educated, and those who live in urban areas. There are a number of public policy makers who think that this should be fixed although it is no more a problem than the disparity in access to food, shelter, or work. Those without education and money are, in each of these categories, at the bottom of the list.
The headlines of “Exploring the Digital Nation” are that 70% of Americans used the internet last year. But, 25% of homes have no internet connection.
The great majority of the conclusions in the report could be guessed by most educated Americans. The well-to-do use broadband connections more than poorer people. Those surveyed in households with $100,000 plus incomes are nearly universal users of broadband–94.1%. That figure falls to 35.8% among people with household incomes under $25,000. That may be viewed by many as a reason to give free broadband access to poor Americans. It make sense to the extent that those who live in poverty do not have ready means get the broad range of information that is online. It is access to information in many cases that would help them move out of poverty.
Education was the other major divide among internet users. Among people who had not graduated high school internet us was only 28.8%. Among those with a college degree or better, use rose to 85.5%. It is hard to be certain whether the internet has value to people with too little education to make it a useful tool. But, that is not a matter for the authors of the study to decide.
Another conclusion which would be expected is that people who dwell in rural areas use the internet less than urban dwellers. In many rural areas, broadband is not available at all. Some people in these areas use dial-up access. Others skip never use the Internet. Among urban residents, 65.9% have broadband access. The rural number is only 51%. For the curious, it is worth noting that broadband use is highest in Utah, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts at 73% and lowest in Mississippi at 42%. The trends of education and income among those states explain the figures without any further analysis necessary.
Of all the data from the survey, the most interesting is why people who do not use the internet have decided to forgo access to one of the greatest inventions in history. Among people who do not use broadband at home, 38% do not think they need it. Another 26% say it is too expensive. The report does not draw any meaningful conclusion about these people. They are in many ways similar to people who do not own cars or believe they are not economically worthwhile. It is hard to win over someone who believes that a product or service is simply a waste.
There is indeed a digital divide in America, but some of it is based on personal choice.
Douglas A. McIntyre