The U.S. Government, through the NTIA, has been surveying internet usage since 2001. Since 2009, it has also been surveying reasons for not using the internet. Of all the studies that are currently under consideration to be used to justify the broadband stimulus plan, the government’s own NTIA Internet Use Survey, which was done before the conception of the plan, is the most unbiased and insightful. As universal internet access is a foregone conclusion in the current debate, the reasons why people are not using the internet have been reduced to just two factors — lack of availability and cost — when there is a lot more to the story.
Over the last 20 years, internet usage at home has increased from 26% in 1998 to 80% in 2019. These stats are well known, and from them we derive how many people do not have broadband. What we need to look at is why some people do not use the internet at all, regardless of broadband availability. The answer will be surprising but highly educational, showing that there is a missing third component in the policy discussion. Without it, the push for universal connectivity in the United States, which is a huge policy goal for the current administration, is doomed to fail.
Why do people not use the internet (not broadband)? Is it availability?
According to the NTIA survey, a whopping 0.7% of the population are not using the internet because it is not available to them.
How about cost? Is internet access too expensive in the United States as many people claim?
The percentage of Americans that do not use the internet because it is too expensive has been falling to 4%. Looks like cost isn’t a real factor for 96% of Americans.
The NTIA findings are around internet usage, not broadband usage where a different pricing may exist. Internet access alone isn’t really enough to use the internet.
Consumers need a computer at home and computers cost money:
Yes, it costs money to buy an adequate computer. Based on the NTIA survey, this was a real problem 15 years ago, when about 10% of Americans did not have an adequate computer at home to access the internet. Today? The NTIA survey tells us that 0.6% say they don’t have an adequate computer. These findings do not diminish the need for affordable internet service in the United States, but they do show that cost is a less significant barrier than ever before.
How about privacy concerns? We always hear that many Americans are concerned about privacy violations or security issues when they go online. The NTIA has also asked Americans about this topic:
An all-time high 0.55% of Americans are not on the internet because they are concerned about privacy and their online security. This compares to about 2% of Americans who believe the earth is flat. However credible these fears regarding privacy or security are, 1.75 million Americans are not using the internet because they are afraid of being tracked or do not feel secure online. Companies and policy makers should use this as a rallying cry to look at uniform privacy rules across all participants in the internet ecosphere. It does not matter to these people who tracks them - they just don’t want to be tracked, regardless if it is by an ISP, website, search engine or social media company. There needs to be an option for people not to be tracked and profiled.
Now what is the number one reason why Americans are not connected to the internet?
I know it is hard to believe that 13% of Americans are just not interested or do not need to use the internet, especially to those of us who live and die by the internet and are ultra-connected. No matter how much we spend on a national broadband plan to provide access to broadband internet or how much we subsidize internet access, when people don’t see the need or are just not interested, adoption numbers are not going to go up substantially.
Almost half of the 13% of Americans who are not interested in the internet are age 65 or older. A third is between 45 and 65 years of age, a surprising 1/6th is between 25 and 44 and an unsurprisingly low 2% is age 15 to 24. Another remarkable finding from the NTIA survey is that there is no significant ethnic or gender difference among people who are not interested in using the internet. There is also no statistically significant difference between people in urban and rural areas who don’t see a point in using the internet.
If we want to see internet or even broadband household adoption increase substantially we need to fund an education effort that is helping people to understand why they should be online and how to use the internet. Just laying fiber everywhere gives 13% of Americans something they don’t want, now even faster. Unless we convince and train these 13% of Americans, most of them over the age of 65, that the internet is a worthwhile and interesting endeavor the entire plan to close the digital divide is for naught.
Roger Entner is the founder and analyst at Recon Analytics. He received an honorary doctor of science degree from Heriot-Watt University. Recon Analytics specializes in fact-based research and the analysis of disparate data sources to provide unprecedented insights into the world of telecommunications. Follow Roger on Twitter @rogerentner.
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