Adding Fuel to the Fire: Assessing NTIA’s Broadband Adoption Study

by David Honig on November 15, 2010

Last week, the National Telecommunications and Information Agency, or NTIA, the executive branch’s advisory body for telecommunications and information policy, released a report on broadband adoption. The top-line finding – that about 64% of all households in the United States currently use broadband to access the Internet – was very encouraging, especially when read against similar usage data from 2001, when the adoption rate was just 9 percent. However, the NTIA report dug deeper into the data than some other recent reports (e.g., those by Pew and the FCC) and identified two trends that will be invaluable as we continue to work toward maximizing the broadband adoption rate.

First, the report further underscored the existence of a digital divide in this country: even though about two-thirds of all U.S. households now use broadband to access the Internet, a majority of households in many discrete demographic groups remain unconnected. Consider the non-adoption rates for the following groups:

  • 62% for people with disabilities, compared to 32% for people without a disability
  • 61% for senior citizens, compared to 29% for people between the ages of 16 and 44
  • 52% for Hispanics and 52% for Blacks, compared to 32% for Whites

Second, the report also found that broadband adoption rates are correlated to income, educational achievement, and the geographic location of households. The following data points are illustrative:

  • 94% of households earning over $100,000 per year use broadband, compared to 36% of households earning less than $25,000 per year
  • 84% of households with a college graduate have adopted broadband, compared to 51% with a high school graduate and 28.8% with less than a high school education
  • 66% of households in metropolitan areas use broadband, compared to 51% of those in rural (non-metropolitan) areas

Most important, NTIA’s study is the first one to show how much of the digital divide is attributable to racial factors: controlling for income, education, geographic location, etc. leaves a 10 percentage point gap between Blacks and Whites that is attributable to race, and a 14 point gap between Hispanics and Whites that is attributable to race.

Part of this difference may be explained by factors closely linked to race, particularly the effects of past (and present) discrimination, and the 14:1 (and growing) racial gap in wealth. Wealth matters in broadband policy because a computer suitable for broadband can’t be bought out of income – it usually has to be bought out of assets.

The racial adoption gap is also partly explained by a perception among minorities that the Internet lacks culturally relevant content – a factor the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies identified in its study of broadband adoption issued this February.

There are some glimmers of hope that we, as a nation, will be able to tackle these problems. First, many of the broadband adoption programs funded by federal stimulus dollars are just beginning to be deployed across the country. One leading example is an initiative being spearheaded by One Economy, which has launched, in partnership with several leading civil rights organizations (including MMTC) a nationwide training and awareness campaign targeted at increasing digital literacy and broadband adoption among low-income and minority non-adopters. This program received the single biggest federal grant for broadband adoption and is poised to reach upwards of 20 million people in cities scattered across the country.

Second, a strategy for addressing broadband adoption issues has already been mapped out. The Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan included a variety of recommendations for bolstering adoption and effective utilization of broadband throughout the country. However, despite receiving bipartisan praise for its strategy to connect the unconnected, the FCC has yet to make any meaningful progress in implementing these recommendations.

NTIA’s landmark study shows that while all demographic groups are increasing their home adoption rates, huge gaps still persist. We still have an extraordinarily wide digital divide based on race, income, education, rural status and disability. That is unacceptable in a democratic society. It means, in the digital age, that the nation still consigns underserved groups to second-class digital citizenship. Universal home adoption and informed use for those not yet online should be the nation’s #1 broadband policy priority.

  • David Honig is MMTC’s President and Executive Director. He co-founded the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC) in 1986. MMTC has represented over 70 minority, civil rights and religious national organizations in selected proceedings before the FCC, and it operates the nation’s only full service, minority owned media and telecom brokerage.

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