NTIA Report Sheds Light on the Persistent Digital Divide

by Nicol Turner-Lee, Ph.D. on October 30, 2014

Dark ComputerAccording to a report issued this month by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), broadband is almost fully deployed in the U.S. Specifically, the report found that “when combined with advances in mobile Internet connectivity, some form of broadband, whether fixed or mobile is now available to 99 percent of the U.S. population.” Implicit in this finding is an assumption that the digital divide, a phrase used to illustrate disparities in broadband access and adoption, is finally being narrowed in terms of access to broadband networks. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go to narrow the divide when it comes to the adoption of broadband.

NTIA’s data accurately notes healthy progress in broadband adoption – from 4 percent in 2000 to 72 percent in 2012, and a remarkable three percentage point increase between 2011 and 2012 – but the report also illustrates continuing digital disparities, particularly among certain demographic and socioeconomic groups.  For example, despite gains in mobile broadband use in 2012, African Americans, Latinos, American Indians, and Alaska Natives still lag in residential connections. Older Americans, those with disabilities, and the poor were also still less likely to be online at home when compared to younger and non-disabled Americans.

These realities faced by vulnerable populations, whether by choice or not, haunt the positive trajectory of online use by millions of Americans and deserve attention as broadband adoption becomes a prerequisite to first class digital citizenship.

According to the report, mobile Internet devices and applications have clearly lowered the barriers to entry for online access and use. Yet education, income, race, and age remain the driving factors predicting an individual’s level of access and also their online behaviors. The report stated that “low-income households were far behind their wealthier counterparts” in terms of home Internet use, with 49 percent of households making less than $25,000 using the Internet at home, compared to 96 percent of households making $100,000 or more.

With respect to what users do online, the report states that, among mobile phone users, the percentage of users that check and send email also correlates with educational attainment: only 19 percent of individuals without a high school diploma actively engaged in these functions, compared to 57 percent of college graduates. Moreover, 40 percent of householders without a high school diploma reported having Internet at home, compared to 92 percent of those with at least a college degree. Such stark differences displayed in both adoption and online activities represent the wider scope of the problem with the digital divide.

While the evolution of mobile technologies under a light-touch regulatory approach has made it a suitable mechanism for engaging in many activities, mobile broadband use still is not a substitute for a residential broadband connection. Essential life functions that include uploading one’s work resume, applying for public or private benefits, or saving important documents, have not yet caught up on smarter mobile devices. NTIA even explained the necessity of further research to understand how people are using their mobile devices to engage in and benefit from the web because it’s clear that access to essential functions on a smartphone is more difficult at this time.

According to the report, the primary obstacle to home broadband adoption is not the expense of Internet services. An overwhelming majority of consumers state that they “don’t need or are not interested” in having a home broadband connection; this number increased from 2003 to 2012 by nine percentage points. Nearly double the number of people cited digital disinterest (48 percent) than those who cited cost (29 percent) as their reason for non-adoption. Moreover, NTIA does not detail the extent to which the cost of a computer, the cost of installation, the cost of monthly service, or other cost components are the primary barriers for non-adoption within this category.

Interestingly, broadband cost was cited more often by former Internet households (43 percent) than non-Internet households that had never gone online at home (27 percent); non-Internet households’ primary concern remains relevance (53 percent). Among the most vulnerable groups, including seniors, the disabled, and people of color, issues around broadband expense remained steady from previous years and in some cases declined. Hispanic populations were the exception, as their concern about cost surpassed concern about relevance by three percentage points in 2012.

Finally, income and educational attainment were both highly correlated with one’s ability to have positive Internet experiences outside of the home, particularly for those using the Internet at work.

The NTIA data clearly demonstrates the growth in U.S. broadband adoption since 2010. These findings are notable in the backdrop of the 2012 economic recession where general expenses and household budgets were both reduced and scrutinized by American households. Other factors, such as race, age, gender, income, ability, and educational attainment contribute to disparate participation on the Internet and thereby perpetuate unequal access to high-speed broadband networks and the platforms they enable.

Closing the divide should be of paramount concern to policymakers and other Internet advocates, especially considering that barriers to access have not diminished for important demographic groups, and this outcome has long-term consequences beyond robust broadband adoption. As the data indicates, the mobile revolution is contributing its part to the movement by making Internet access seamless, convenient, and more universal. More needs to be done to implement policies that release spectrum to meet rising consumer demand and allow for more robust innovation in mobile technologies.

It’s also clear from the NTIA data that the problem of the digital divide is not solely about the lack of a regulated pricing structure that is at the center of the debate on the future of the Internet. Too many Americans, especially those from vulnerable demographic groups, are telling us that they do not realize the value of our online economy. The core of the open Internet debate should be about creating policies and programs that cultivate interest in the digital economy and get more people online.

Simply put, the NTIA report confirms that it’s time to refocus our policy imperatives to ensure universal broadband adoption, access, and informed use, and turn our attention to closing the persistent digital divide.

  • Nicol Turner-Lee, Ph.D., Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee is Vice President and Chief Research and Policy Officer for the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC). Prior to joining MMTC, she served as President and CEO to NAMIC, a professional association representing diversity in the cable industry and as Vice President and Director of the Media and Technology Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.


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