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New NTIA broadband adoption study confirms gaps based on race

The new NTIA report, Exploring the Digital Nation: Home Broadband Internet Adoption in the United States,
was released this week and while the good news is that 64%  of U.S. households had broadband service at home as of October 2009, up from 51 percent in 2007, the bad, but not surprising, news is that minorities and low income communities continue to lag in terms of adoption.
Minority Media & Telecommunications Council executive director, David Honig, did an excellent job at picking apart that key finding of the report:

The key analysis is on p. 12, where the study concludes that socio-economic factors other than race explain half of the White-Black adoption gap and one-fourth of the White-Hispanic adoption gap.  Put another way, controlling for income, education, geographic location, etc. leaves a 10 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 a number of factors linked to race:  the huge gap in wealth (a computer suitable for broadband can’t be bought out of income – it usually has to be bought out of assets) – the wealth gap is about 14:1 and has been growing fast.  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 earlier this year.

Above all, NTIA’s landmark study shows that while all demographic groups are increasing their home adoption rates, huge gaps still persist.  We still have a 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 – rather than net neutrality for those who are fortunate enough to be online – should be the nation’s #1 broadband policy priority.

A PCWorld article by Grant Gross sums up the NTIA Director Strickland’s summation of the findings and FCC Chair Julius Genachowski’s response:

The goal of the report is to give policymakers a detailed view of the factors that contribute to broadband adoption, NTIA officials said.

“Americans who lack broadband Internet access are cut off from many educational and employment opportunities,” NTIA administrator Lawrence Strickling said in a statement. “The learning from today’s report is that there is no simple ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to closing the digital divide. A combination of approaches makes sense, including targeted outreach programs to rural and minority populations emphasizing the benefits of broadband.”

The survey asked respondents who don’t have broadband why they don’t subscribe. Thirty-eight percent said they weren’t interested or didn’t need it, and 26 percent said it was too expensive. Eighteen percent said they had no computer or an inadequate computer, and only 4 percent said broadband wasn’t available where they lived.

The new report will give the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and other interested groups an in-depth look at the “persistent gaps between the digital haves and digital have-nots,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement.

Closing those gaps will be a top priority for the FCC, which released a national broadband plan in March, Genachowski said.

“The digital divide is an opportunity divide — if you can’t get online, you can’t compete in the digital economy,” he added. “Connecting America to fast, affordable Internet will create 21st-century jobs that grow our economy and secure our global leadership.”

Now, haven’t we ALL been singing this same tune for years now while the FCC was off battling the non-issue that is network neutrality? I must be having deja vu. I  feel like it was just yesterday that I was reading a report from Larry Irving’s NTIA about the Digital Divide: Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide in 1999 that had similar findings.  Looks like the only thing that has changed is the last name of the NTIA Director.

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  • “We” agree on the goal, but not the methodology for achieving the goal. Given the findings of the NTIA study and the nature of our economy, a universal broadband adoption/digital literacy mandate is problematic.

    Regulation — or in this case, the lack thereof –is one of those socioeconomic factors other than race that’s driving the digital divide. In fact, I don’t accept race as anything more than a corollary factor in residential broadband adoption. Were broadband regulated in such a fashion that facilitated genuine regulation among ISPs (and their vendors), the #1 concern cited by consumers looking to subscribe to broadband — high costs — could be effectively addressed.

  • So you are saying regulation is needed to facilitate broadband adoption? I am unclear.

  • The magazine articles cited above ignore the fact that a cheap computer purchased at a garage sale for $25 is perfectly good for broadband. Not having a computer is not a big factor in broadband adoption.

  • Thanks for catching my error, Jeneba. Were broadband regulated in such a fashion that facilitated genuine *competition* among ISPs… high costs to consumers would be mitigated and subscription rates would grow. Responsible regulation could also influence where broadband services become available.

    I don’t agree universal broadband adoption should be a policy goal.

  • A $25 is a nominal barrier Brett. What is more of an impediment is the monthly fee and the perception that there is no value to it over a Wii console for example that may be price but doesn’t have a monthly fee.

  • So you don’ t see the value of getting people who are undereducated, underemployed, undertrained and without access to all the benefits of broadband access to broadband? You see no purpose whatsoever in the government, private industry, nonprofits working to getting more Americans on parity or surpassing hundreds of other countries in the world, including some so-called third world countries, in widespread adoption and use of broadband.

    So you are comfortable in us remaining in the middle of the pack or falling further behind, you say?

  • I support a gov’t policy of universal broadband access.

    I don’t support a gov’t policy for universal broadband adoption. The difference being a policy for adoption is essentially a mandate, and the enforcement of such a policy is problematic. There are some people who don’t want to subscribe to broadband, and they’re entitled to make that choice.

  • Broadband access is available in many minority communities. Most minorities live in urban areas and upward to 90% of urban areas have at least one broadband provider. Access is NOT the problem for many minority communities, William, adoption is.

    So, while you certainly CANNOT force someone to adopt a service they do not want or want to pay for, I certainly see NOTHING wrong with educating them on the value of it and encouraging private companies to lower the price, work with NGOs and the government to make it easier for these folks to upgrade their dial up internet to broadband. Many in the poor communities get cable and have dial-up no doubt. It is a win for the communities and the private companies because once these folks start seeing the benefits of broadband and getting attached, they will be willing to keep it past an introductory offer or when the subsidy lapses.

    In the end, we get an informed, educated and more engaged body of people which is good for All of America.

  • We’ll have to disagree on which problem takes precedent, Jeneba. While I’d like to see everyone adopt broadband, affecting consumer decisions by fiat is impractical and inefficient.

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