Troubling gaps still exist in broadband use


Wireless broadband is seen as a particularly attractive option for bringing high-speed connections to rural areas that might be too sparsely populated to justify costly landline networks.

At the same time, the NTIA and the Rural Utilities Service, part of the Agriculture Department, have been handing out roughly $7 billion in stimulus money to pay for new broadband networks and programs to get more Americans online.

Strickling stressed that one key challenge for policy makers lies in convincing Americans who are not online of the benefits of broadband use.

The Census data found that 38 percent of Americans who don’t have broadband access at home say they don’t subscribe because they don’t need it, while 26 percent say it’s too expensive and only 4 percent say it’s not available where they live.

A survey conducted by the FCC last year reached many of the same conclusions. It found that 35 percent of Americans do not use broadband at home, including 22 percent of adults who do not use the internet at all. Of that 35 percent, 36 percent say it is too expensive, while 19 percent do not see the internet as relevant to their lives. Another 22 percent lack what the FCC calls “digital literacy” skills.

To try to change such attitudes, the stimulus program includes $250 million for projects to teach digital literacy skills and encourage broadband adoption, plus another $200 million for public computer centers.

One surprising finding of the new Commerce Department report is that African-Americans and Hispanics lag behind in broadband access even when controlling for factors such as income and education. The data show a gap of 10 percentage points in broadband use between whites and blacks and a gap of 14 percentage points between whites and Hispanics even after controlling for socio-economic factors.

Although the data do not provide an explanation for these numbers, Rebecca Blank, under secretary for Economic Affairs, believes it could reflect limited exposure to the internet among certain racial groups.

“Internet usage relies on networks,” she said. “If the people around you don’t use the internet, you will be less likely to use the internet, too.”

Laura Ascione