Demographic gaps persist in broadband Internet use

Commerce study shows disparities not accounted for by income or education

Broadband usage in the United States increased dramatically over the last eight years, rising from just 9 percent of households in 2001 to 64 percent in 2009, according to a new analysis of Census Bureau data by the Commerce Department.

But gaps persist, with racial, ethnic and geographic disparities between the haves and have-nots that extend beyond such socio-economic factors as income and education, officials said Monday.

“The report focuses on why, even where broadband infrastructure is available, it is not being used,” said Lawrence E. Strickling, administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and assistant secretary for communications and information.

According to the report, “persons with high incomes, those who are younger, Asians and Whites, the more highly-educated, married couples, and the employed tend to have higher rates of broadband use at home. Conversely, persons with low incomes, seniors, minorities, the less-educated, non-family households, and the non-employed tend to lag behind other groups in broadband use.”

“That is no surprise to anyone,” said Rebecca Blank, Commerce undersecretary for economic affairs. What was a surprise was that the disparities continued even after education and income were factored out of the equation, she said.

Blank speculated that although income and education matter, the residual differences are based largely on social networking issues; those whose family and friends tend to be active online are more likely to use the Internet themselves.

Strickling and Blank said the information contained in the report, “Exploring the Digital Nation: Home Broadband Internet Adoption in the United States,” will be used to drive Commerce Department policy on expanding broadband availability and use.

Hurdles to broadband adoption could put a hitch in the Obama administration’s National Broadband Plan, which has a goal of broadband in 90 percent of American households by 2020.

“Americans who lack broadband Internet access are cut off from many educational and employment opportunities,” Strickling said.

Related stories:

Spurning the Internet: Many Americans not online at all, by choice

FCC wants faster Internet for government buildings

The department has awarded nearly $500 million in grants for development of sustainable broadband infrastructure and public computer centers.

“The bedrock of sound policymaking is statistical measurement and analysis of the data and underlying issues,” Blank said.

The study is from Census Bureau data collected in October 2010 from more than 54,000 households as part of its Current Population Survey. Commerce published its initial findings on broadband usage from the data in February. Today’s report represents a more thorough analysis, conducted by the department’s Economic and Statistics Administration.

The terms “broadband” and “high speed” are not defined in the study. Respondents were asked only whether they used a dial-up connection, broadband or “something else,” so there is no information about the actual speed of the connections households are using. Dial-up connections through a telephone modem top out at 56 kilobits/second, and most cable, DSL or other high speed links usually begin at around a megabit per second or faster.

The survey showed that a majority of U.S. households, 64 percent, have some form of broadband connection at home, up from 51 percent in 2007. The use of dial-up connections dropped from 11 percent to 5 percent over the same time. That still leaves 31 percent of households with no Internet connection. Of those, 8 percent have family members who use the Internet outside of the home, and 23 percent do not use the Internet at all.

Although a lack of availability was a factor for rural households without broadband access, a lack of interest and affordability were the primary reasons given by those who do not have a home connection. For those households clinging to dial-up service, affordability was given as the primary reason for not adopting broadband.

“Even though broadband Internet use has expanded significantly during this decade, not all groups are participating in the Internet revolution to the same extent,” the report concluded. “This information may contribute to the national efforts to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to be linked into the services and information available through the Internet.”


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


  • Records management: Look beyond the NARA mandates

    Pandemic tests electronic records management

    Between the rush enable more virtual collaboration, stalled digitization of archived records and managing records that reside in datasets, records management executives are sorting through new challenges.

  • boy learning at home (Travelpixs/

    Tucson’s community wireless bridges the digital divide

    The city built cell sites at government-owned facilities such as fire departments and libraries that were already connected to Tucson’s existing fiber backbone.

Stay Connected