Broadband divide still exists, study finds

Low-income, rural and some minority groups continue to lag significantly behind other U.S. groups in broadband adoption, according to a new report from the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

Sixty-four percent of U.S. households had broadband service at home as of October 2009, up from 51% in 2007, said the report, based on a survey of 54,000 households by the U.S. Census Bureau. Another 5% of households connected to the Internet through dial-up service, compared to 11% in 2007.

But there was a large drop-off in broadband subscription rates among several groups. Households with less than $25,000 in income had an adoption rate of less than 36%, and less than 29% of households where the head earner did not receive a high school diploma had broadband.

African-American, Native American and Hispanic households all had broadband adoption rates lower than 50%. Fifty-one percent of rural households subscribed to broadband.

More than 71% of households with primary earners aged 16 to 44 had broadband, while less than 40% of households with people aged 65 and older had broadband.

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% said it was too expensive. Eighteen percent said they had no computer or an inadequate computer, and only 4% 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."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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