The Digital Divide: How The Math Works
December 05th, 2011
Author: DeVan Hankerson, CCU Co-Chair
The 21st century is the digital century. The development of the e-economy is the most well noted difference between this century and the preceding century. Do most citizens participate in the American e-economy? And why is full participation so important? The answer is no and that participation in the U.S. is divided along socio-economic lines, which has a negative impact on our growth prospects as a nation.
National challenges like the U.S. broadband adoption rate, reflect individual American citizen’s capacity to employ 21st century vehicles of economic mobility such as information and communications technology. Without full participation we jeopardize our competitiveness as a nation.
The EU crisis hangs before us, like any potential disaster that threatens world financial collapse and perhaps our best chance of growth, recovery, (and resuscitation) should be top of mind. In other words considering that the Internet economy contributes 2TR annually to the U.S. economy and is responsible for 15% of U.S. economic growth. The prospects of universal service and high broadband adoption in the U.S. would make an enormous difference for the U.S. economy. What follows are a set of U.S. broadband vital signs with minimal commentary:
Home Broadband Adoption
Trends in home computer use and broadband adoption rates continue to diverge based on location, age, education, income and ethnicity. The most recent data from the NTIA (2011) study on Computer and Internet Use at Home shows the following patterns of use and adoption:
Citizens with the highest home computer use and broadband adoption rates are urbanities with incomes $100,000 or more (96%) and citizens with the lowest home computer use and broadband adoption rates lack a high school diploma and live in rural areas (26%). Across the board, both computer use and broadband adoption is higher for urban dwellers than for people living in rural areas.
Computer Use for people living in urban areas by ethnic groups (in order of lowest to highest) is as follows:
- 66% African American
- 67% Hispanic American
- 74% Native American
- 82% White American
- 86% Asian American
Home Broadband Adoption by ethnic group:
- 53% African American
- 58% Hispanic American
- 66% Native American
- 75% White American
- 81% Asian American
The NTIA study also reports the Broadband Internet Adoption gap, which shows the following disparities:
- 13 percentage points in home broadband between urban and rural households
- 16 percentage points gap between White American and African American homes
- 15 percentage point between White American and Hispanic American homes
- 9 percentage points difference in broadband Internet adoption between Asian American and White households
The most recent 2010 data on Mobile Internet Access from the Pew Research Center shows that the highest percentage of wireless Internet users (84%) are aged 18-29 and that households with incomes greater than $75,000 (80%), and college graduates (76%) are also in the high wireless use category.
Wireless Internet Users by ethnic group:
- 64% of African Americans,
- 63% of Hispanic Americans, and
- 57% of white Americans were wireless Internet users
Within the population of wireless users it is important to distinguish laptop users from mobile phone users, (people accessing the Internet from these devices) and consider the number of people that own multiple devices. Additionally, the percentage of people that only have wireless access is on the rise, particularly among low-income Americans.
See Infographic on wireless-only use around the world.
Wireless Only Users
If we are too become a stronger economy we have to be address the disparities in home broadband use among low-income Americans.
Wireless only users among adults is almost 50% for people in poverty, which contrasts most strongly against home broadband access rates among the wealthiest Americans.
- 38% wireless only use among Hispanic Americans.
- 31% among African Americans
- 25% among White Americans
The Pew Center for Internet and American Life published data on mobile usage trends by ethnic group and their works show that communities of color are more active users of mobile data applications, (‘) on average. For the sake of comparison the national average for mobile data application use is 4.3:
- Hispanic Americans use an average of 5.8 mobile data applications like
- African Americans use an average of 5.4 mobile data apps
- White Americans use an average of 3.8, well below the national average.
Fixed Broadband (Adoption)
The FCC reports that 14 million people living in seven million housing are without access to broadband infrastructure. Considering the benefits of broadband Internet access lack of access or lack of familiarity, or digital literacy has far reaching implications for individual citizens economic mobility and access to opportunity. A study conducted by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), on Broadband Adoption in Low-Income Communities shows that low-income Americans are well aware of the disadvantages and are eager to have access.
- 43% of Americans believe that lacking broadband access is a “major disadvantage” when it comes to finding out about job opportunities or gaining new career skills.
- 34% believe that lacking broadband is a “major disadvantage” when it comes to getting health information.
- 31% of believe that lacking broadband access is a “major disadvantage” when it comes to learning new things to improve/enrich life
Fixed Broadband Price/Speed
One of the most frequently cited reasons in the U.S. for non-adoption of broadband services is cost, which is unsurprising considering that among industrialized nations (for hi and low tier service (*)) broadband services in the United States are more expensive.
A recent study completed by NetForecast found that “at lower service tiers, consumers generally receive less bandwidth capacity than advertised, while at higher tiers consumers tend to receive more than the advertised bandwidth capacity, except during peak usage periods”. The implications for low-income consumers are clear, especially considering adoption rates among low-income Americans and the disproportionate need for access as a means of economic mobility.
According to a November 2011 study from the NTIA of households citing cost as the main reason they don’t have Internet: (+)
- 30% list fixed costs (computer/hardware
- 33% list both fixed cost and monthly service
- 27% list monthly Internet access service costs
Global: The United States vs. the World
Fixed Broadband (Adoption)
- 16th in the world in fixed broadband subscribers, appx. 26 people out of every 100 has a broadband subscription (Latest Data from the ITU)
- U.S. is ranked 8th among the OECD for 3G coverage with a coverage rate of 92.3% (2008), and the OECD average at 81.1%.
Wireless Growth (as measured by mobile traffic i.e. use):
- Data gathered by Columbia University’s Institute for Tele-Information on Mobile traffic on the U.S. AT&T network has increased more than 5000%. T-Mobile (USA) saw an increase in mobile traffic by 45% within one year (between Q209 and Q309.)
Due to exponential growth in mobile traffic around the world, most countries are in the same position as the United States and are facing spectrum management challenges.
Wireless Only Use:
- See Infographic for global comparison of mobile-only access, in the United States about 25% or 78 million people use wireless exclusively.
In conclusion, and without adding too much additional commentary, our nations’ ability compete globally is dependent on how well we target technology access disparities domestically. Considering that 1 in 3 Americans lives in or near poverty, the number of people utilizing wireless services alone is sure to increase as well as an increased reliance on the more viable sectors in our economy. With these kind of numbers, the digital divide is a greater obstacle to our economic recovery now, than perhaps has ever been discussed.
Mobile data applications as defined by Pew include the following activities: taking a picture, sending/receiving a text message, accessing the Internet, sending/receiving an email, playing a game, recording a video, playing music, sending/receiving an instant message, using a social networking site, watching a video, posting a photo or video online, purchasing a product, and using a status update service.
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