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Understanding the Broadband Adoption Gap

10.13.2016

While broadband internet adoption has been growing over the past two decades and the digital divide has been closing rapidly in recent years, there remains a group of non-adopters who may not be easily converted, according to NTIA's July 2015 Computer and Internet Use Supplement to the Current Population Survey. USTelecom enthusiastically supports efforts to increase broadband adoption by bringing more Americans online.

Telecom companies and hardware manufacturers have worked hard to make internet access available to all Americans. Broadband providers have invested on average more than $70 billion annually over the last two decades to build out and upgrade networks across the nation. Today nearly all Americans have a choice among wired or wireless broadband providers:  less than a million households said internet service wasn’t available in their area in the July 2015 survey.

And most Americans have chosen to take advantage of widely available internet service. According to NTIA’s data, the share of American households using the internet at home has risen from 26 percent (27 million households) in 1998 to 73 percent (92 million households) in 2015. The share of households in which someone uses Internet anywhere—at home or in other locations such as a school, a library, or a workplace—is now at 79 percent, 

Yet, 33 million U.S. households (27 percent) still do not use the internet at home. Government data suggests that the gap between rural and urban area internet usage has remained stubbornly constant at anywhere from 6 to 9 percentage points. In 2015, 69 percent of rural residents reported being online, compared to 75 percent of urban residents.

Some 26 million households (21 percent) are never online. To bring these remaining 33 million non-internet households online, price and affordability have been the more common levers that advocates and government have used. However, less than a quarter (24 percent) of the 33 million non-internet homes cite price as the main reason they don’t have access at home.

More than half (55 percent) of these non-internet households say they don’t need the internet or have no interest in Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat, Pandora and the myriad other apps and services available online. That’s more than twice the number of households that say they can’t afford internet services.

These digital “don’t cares” are a much tougher segment to address through industry and government programs focused on price and affordability. Instead, programs must also focus on demonstrating that internet is relevant and useful to these consumers.  USTelecom supports programs aimed at closing the digital divide and bringing more Americans online. In recent comments to the Commerce Department, USTelecom suggested more research needs to be done on why consumers aren’t going online. Digital literacy is significantly under-studied and federal researchers should focus on those issues, ideally in partnership with experts who work with the unconnected.

The NTIA data do suggest that non-adopting consumers which have previously used the internet continue to see its value. There are 6.3 million non-internet households in the July 2015 survey that once had internet access at home but gave it up. These households, which had experienced the internet first-hand, were far less likely than never-internet homes to say they did not need or were not interested in access. Only 21 percent of former-internet homes said “don’t need it” compared to 36 percent of never-internets.  Only 13 percent of residents in former-internet homes said “not interested” compared to 24 percent of never-internets.

Once a household is convinced of the benefits of internet access, price and affordability programs can become more effective. Thirty-one percent of former-internet households said that they could not afford the service, while only 20 percent of never-adopting households cited affordability as their main motivation. Half of former-internet households said they would sign up for access if a lower-priced service was available, compared to only 17 percent of the never-internet households.

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