U.S. Broadband Gap Isn't Color Blind

NTIA/Commerce Dept study analyzing broadband adoption in the U.S finds some surprising ethnic differences in the digital divide.

By Sean Michael Kerner | Posted Nov 8, 2010
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When it comes to broadband adoption in the U.S, income and education aren't the only factors that may be limiting use.

A new report from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) provides new insight into the role that ethnicity and race play in broadband adoption. The Digital Nation II report is based on data collected from 54,000 households by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2009.

Among the high-level findings of the report is that there is a broadband adoption gap in the U.S. not based entirely on social or economic status.

"It is true that there are big race and ethnic differences, big urban and rural differences and differences by income and education," U.S. Under Secretary for Economic Affairs ESA, Rebecca Blank, said during a press conference. "That's not a surprise to anyone."

Blank added that in the past, many people had hypothesized that differences by race or ethnicity are primarily the result of lower income and education levels. According to the new Digital Nation II report, that hypothesis may not be entirely accurate.

"What our report does is look at race and ethnic differences and control for differences in income and education and ask if there are ongoing differences across race and ethnicity across geographical regions," Blank said. "The striking result here is that there really are quite large differences that remain even after taking into account income and education."

Blank noted that according to the data analysis, an African-American household at the same income and education level as a white household is still less likely to have broadband access and use the Internet.

"That's not something that we necessarily expected to see," Blank said.

As to why there is a racial and ethnic divide for broadband adoption, Blank noted that the data doesn't provide that answer, though she has a few ideas on what might be going on. Blank stressed that income and education are important, but even taking them into account there are still race and ethnic differences in broadband adoption.

"The story that I think is most likely, and this goes beyond the data we have immediately available, is simply about the network aspects of the Internet," Blank said. "The Internet is all about being part of networks of people that are also using the Internet. So that if more of your friends, neighbors and relatives are on the Internet and using it, you'll be more likely to be there."

As such, Blank commented that if there is a group, that for whatever historical reasons, has not been using the Internet as much as others, that will lower usage even among those that have higher income and education levels.

Other findings from the Digital Nation II report reveal that there is also an age divide when it comes to reasons why a household doesn't have broadband. For older Americans, Blank said the typical response was that it wasn't needed. For younger Americans, affordability was the key issue.

The new report points to a number of items that need to be considered as part of any U.S. national policy for broadband adoption. The U.S. has been busy this year providing billions in federal grants and loans for multiple broadband projects as the FCC works on a national broadband plan.

"It's clear that there is no one size fits all solution to this issue and we can't make assumptions that the cause for non-adoption is simply income or availability," Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information and NTIA Administrator Lawrence E. Strickling said. "What it shows is we must have very targeted programs for specific populations."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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