The UnDigital Nation: NTIA Finds Persistent Gaps in Home Internet Use

On October 16, the US Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released a report, Exploring the Digital Nation: Embracing the Mobile Internet, which finds that over the last five years, the total number of Americans 16 and older that accessed the Internet on any device grew by 18 percent from 151 million in 2007 to 187 million in 2012 after adjusting for population growth. Broadband adoption at home increased to 72 percent of households in 2012 from 69 percent in 2011. Despite the progress in home broadband adoption, the report also identifies persistent gaps in home Internet use. In 2012, a significant portion -- 28 percent -- of American households did not use broadband at home. A lack of interest or need (48 percent) and affordability (29 percent) are the top two reasons for non-adoption.

The NTIA stresses that Americans are rapidly embracing mobile Internet devices such as smart phones and tablet computers for a wide range of activities beyond just voice communications (such as checking e-mail and using social networks) and concludes that mobile phones appear to be helping to narrow the digital divide among traditionally disadvantaged groups. In this summary of the NTIA report, we focus on the reasons for non-adoption cited in the survey. As the report's authors write, “The ... discussion of the main reasons why some households declined to access the Internet at home, in order of their prevalence among 2012 [Current Population Survey] respondents, may assist policymakers as they pursue universal broadband adoption and affordable connectivity in every community in the nation.”

No Need or Interest
Over time, U.S. households without the Internet at home have most often cited a lack of need or interest as the main reason why they are not connected. Although 48 percent of non-using households gave this reason in both 2011 and 2012, the figure rose from 39 percent in 2003. Households that once used the Internet at home, but no longer did so as of the 2012 CPS, expressed disinterest in home Internet use much less frequently (21 percent) than the households that had never connected to the Internet from home (53 percent). Additionally, 38 percent of households that reported only using dial-up Internet service at home cited a lack of need for, or interest in, home broadband connections in 2012, an increase from 34 percent of dial-up users in 2011.

  • Consistently, White and Asian American households were most likely to express a lack of interest in going online at home. American Indian and Alaska Native households have been the least likely to say they lacked a need or interest in going online at home. In 2012, 38 percent of Hispanic households said they did not need to use the Internet where they lived.
  • In 2012, households led by people with disabilities citing lack of interest or need for home Internet use increased to 56 percent of non-users, compared to 51 percent in 2011.
  • Households with school-age children that lacked home Internet service were 7 percentage points less likely to state they did not need to use the Internet at home at 47 percent, compared to 54 percent of those without school-age children.
  • Non-using householders ages 65 or older were the least interested in going online at home. [See Benton Foundation and Senior Service America's efforts around a potential digital literacy campaign that targets older adults.]
  • Unemployed householders were always the least likely to state they did not need to use the Internet at home.
  • In 2012, the most affluent non-using households, with annual incomes of $100,000 or more, stated less often than other income groups that they did not want or need to use the Internet in their homes (45 percent), followed closely by households with family incomes below $25,000 per year (47 percent). About half of households with annual incomes ranging between $25,000 and $99,999 expressed disinterest in accessing the Internet at home.
  • Generally, between 2001 and 2012, rural residents stated they did not need to use the Internet at home more often than urban residents. CPS data for 2012 show 52 percent of rural residents who explained they were not interested in home Internet use, while 48 percent of urban residents replied they were uninterested in home Internet.

NTIA’s broadband programs have focused on both expanding access to broadband and encouraging broadband adoption by working with grantees to help non-adopters see how broadband can benefit them. NTIA released a broadband adoption toolkit last year detailing best practices organizations can use to help encourage Internet use.

The expense of using the Internet at home remained the second most often cited reason non-Internet households offered in 2012 as the main reason why they did not connect there. Although households indicating a lack of interest exceed those naming expense as the main obstacle, the number of households citing expense should raise concerns for policymakers, NTIA writes. For those households -- 7 percent of all American households -- high costs or low income may present significant barriers to going online.

Twenty-nine percent of unconnected households responded in 2012 that they viewed the cost of going online at home as too high. The proportion of households citing expense has since grown steadily, from 23 percent in 2003 to 28 percent in 2011. Among households that ceased using the Internet at home by 2012, the expense of such service was the most frequent explanation for why they had relinquished it (43 percent), and they gave this response twice as often as their lost need or interest in home Internet use (21 percent). In contrast to formerly-using households, those that had never been online at home stated disinterest twice as often (53 percent) as too expensive (27 percent). Only 2 percentage points separated dial-up households expressing disinterest in high-speed home Internet connections (38 percent) from such households responding that cost prevented them from using residential broadband service (36 percent) in 2012.

  • CPS data continue to show that affordability, as a household’s main reason for not using the Internet at home, varied among racial and ethnic groups:
    • Since 2001, Whites and Asian Americans have been the least likely to cite expense as their main impediment to home Internet use.
    • Between 2011 and 2012, the percentage of African American householders offering this reason dropped 1 point to 37 percent. At the same time, the percentage of all other groups reporting expense as the most important reason for not using home Internet connections increased between 2011 and 2012.
    • Hispanic households providing the same response rose a modest 4 percentage points from 37 percent to 41 percent compared to the 9 percentage-point gain reported by Asian American householders (17 percent to 26 percent) and the dramatic 17 percentage-point jump reflected in the responses of American Indians and Alaska Natives (25 percent to 42 percent) from 2011 to 2012. During the preceding period between 2010 and 2011, the incidence of African American householders citing financial concerns increased by 8 percentage points from 30 percent to 38 percent. Yet the proportion of Hispanic householders deterred by cost considerations from going online at home grew more slowly by 2 percentage points from 35 percent to 37 percent between 2010 and 2011.
  • At 50 percent, non-using households, led by the youngest householders ages 15 to 24, most often stated that high cost prevented their Internet use at home.
  • 22 percent of householders with a disability expressed cost concerns as their primary reason for not going online at home.
  • Families with school children (30 percent) were more likely than those without (24 percent) to say expense primarily explained why they did not use home Internet connections.
  • In 2012, 58 percent of unemployed persons reported that expense was the main reason for not using the Internet at home, which represented the highest percentage of respondents offering this reason between 2001 and 2012.
  • The lowest earning households most often stated that financial concerns were the primary factor for not having residential Internet service. Both in 2012 and 2011, 32 percent of households with family incomes less than $25,000 cited expense, while 19 percent of families earning $100,000 or more annually gave the same reason in each of those years. Families with household incomes between $25,000 and $49,999, expressing concern about the expense of accessing the Internet at home, remained constant at 26 percent from 2011 to 2012, but grew 4 percentage points among those earning between $50,000 and $74,999 during that period. In 2012, non-adopting households earning less than $25,000 annually were the income group most concerned about the cost of home Internet service, but significantly, they were also the least likely to say they had no interest or need for such service.
  • Consistent with historical patterns, in 2012, rural households (25 percent) expressed less concern about the expense of home Internet use than did urban households (30 percent). Between 2011 and 2012, urban respondents who stated online access at home was too expensive rose by a percentage point, but the frequency of that response did not change among rural households. The percentages citing expense for both groups grew from 2010 (21 percent rural; 25 percent urban) to 2011 (25 percent rural; 30 percent urban).

One major goal of the National Broadband Plan is "Every American should have affordable access to robust broadband service, and the means and skills to subscribe if they so choose." To promote affordability, the plan proposes extending the Federal Communications Commission's Lifeline program to support broadband. To date, the FCC has not completed this reform of the Lifeline program. However, the FCC has:

  • Adopted an express goal for the program of ensuring availability of broadband for all low-income Americans.
  • Established a Broadband Adoption Pilot Program using up to $25 million in savings from other reforms to test and determine how Lifeline can best be used to increase broadband adoption among Lifeline-eligible consumers.
  • Proposed increasing digital literacy training at libraries and schools.
  • Allowed Lifeline support for bundled services plans combining voice and broadband or packages including optional calling features.

Additional Reasons
A number of additional reasons were cited for non-adoption; they include:

  • No or Inadequate Computer: This reason for not using the Internet at home has continued to decrease in prominence, declining by 2 percentage points between 2011 and 2012 to 11 percent.
  • Can Use It Elsewhere: In 2012, households stating they did not access the Internet at home because they could go online at some other location remained constant at 3 percent from 2011.
  • Not Available In Area: Rural residents were twice as likely at 2 percent to explain they did not connect to the Internet at home because no Internet service was available where they lived compared to 1 percent of urban residents. Fifteen percent of dial-up households reported they did not use high-speed connections at home because residential broadband service was inaccessible to them.
  • Privacy: Although only 1 percent of households expressed privacy concerns in both 2011 and 2012 as their primary reason for not using the Internet at home, well-publicized data breaches and greater consumer awareness of Internet privacy issues may affect this response in future years.

FCC Releases New Broadband Study, Too
Also on October 16, the Federal Communications Commission released Internet Access Services: Status as of December 31, 2013, a report that summarizes information about Internet access connections over 200 kilobits per second (kbps) in at least one direction. This report is based on data submitted by service providers to the FCC. Overall, the FCC found that between June 2003 and June 2013, U.S. household adoption increased from 18 connections per 100 households to 69 connections per 100 households.

The FCC notes that between December 2012 and December 2013:

  • Internet connections overall are growing. The number of connections over 200 kbps in at least one direction increased by 12% year-over-year to 293 million.
  • Residential fixed-location Internet access connections over 200 kbps in at least one direction increased by 4% to 88 million.
  • In December 2013, there were 78 million fixed and 133 million mobile connections with download speeds at or above 3 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds at or above 768 kbps as compared to 65 million fixed and 65 million mobile connections a year earlier.
  • The number of connections with downstream speeds of at least 10 Mbps increased by 104% over December 2012, to 122 million connections, including 64 million fixed connections and 58 million mobile connections.
  • Growth is particularly high in mobile Internet subscriptions. The number of mobile subscriptions with speeds over 200 kbps in at least one direction grew to 197 million – up 16% from December 2012. The number of fixed-location connections at speeds over 200 kbps in at least one direction increased by 4% year-over-year to 96 million.

In December 2013:

  • 10% of reportable fixed connections (or 10 million connections) were slower than 3 Mbps in the downstream direction, 14% (or 13.7 million connections) were at least 3 Mbps in the downstream direction but slower than 6 Mbps, and 75% (or 72.3 million connections) were at least 6 Mbps in the downstream direction.
  • 16% of reportable fixed connections (or 15.2 million connections) were slower than 768 kbps in the upstream direction, 29% (or 28.1 million connections) were at least 768 kbps in the upstream direction but slower than 1.5 Mbps, and 55% (or 52.7 million connections) were at least 1.5 Mbps in the upstream direction.

The overarching goal of the National Broadband Plan is that at least 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 Mbps and actual upload speeds of at least 50 Mbps by 2020. As a milestone, by 2015, 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of 50 Mbps and actual upload speeds of 20 Mbps. As the recent appearance of pumpkin spice lattes reminds us, 2015 is not far away. These new reports from the NTIA and FCC help put into perspective our progress toward the national broadband goals -- and just who is being left behind.

By Kevin Taglang.