WASHINGTON – The digital divide is still with us, says a new report from the U.S. Department of Commerce – and the gap is based not just on income and education but also on racial, ethnic and geographical differences.

The Commerce Department’s Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA) and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released a new report, “Digital Nation II,” that analyzes broadband Internet access and adoption across the United States. The study – which the Commerce Department calls the most comprehensive of its kind – finds that socioeconomic factors such as income and education levels, although strongly associated with broadband Internet use, are not the sole determinants of use. Even after accounting for socioeconomic differences, significant gaps persist along racial, ethnic, and geographic lines.

The report analyzes data collected through a survey of 54,000 households conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau in October 2009. Earlier this year, NTIA released initial findings showing that while virtually all demographic groups have experienced rising broadband Internet adoption at home, and 64 percent of households now have broadband at home, historic disparities among demographic groups have persisted over time.

“Americans who lack broadband Internet access are cut off from many educational and employment opportunities,” says Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information and NTIA Administrator Lawrence E. Strickling. “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. NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program is helping to address this challenge, but we are hopeful today’s report will be useful to the larger community working to close the gap.”

The principal findings of the report are:

  • Seven out of 10 American households used the Internet in 2009. The majority of these households used broadband to access the Internet at home. In 2009, 64 percent of American households had broadband Internet access at home, up from 9 percent in 2001.
  • Income and education are strongly associated with broadband Internet use at home but are not the sole determinants.
  • Broadband Internet adoption was higher among white households than among black and Hispanic households. Differences in socioeconomic attributes do not explain the entire gap associated with race and ethnicity. A similar pattern holds for urban and rural locations. Urban residents were more likely than their rural counterparts to adopt broadband Internet, even after accounting for socioeconomic differences.
  • In contrast, differences in socioeconomic and geographic characteristics do explain a substantial portion of the broadband adoption lag among people with disabilities.
  • Broadband adoption also varies with age, with the elderly population much less likely than their younger counterparts to use home broadband Internet services.
  • Why Don’t Households Have Broadband Access?
    Affordability and lack of need or interest were the primary reasons for not having home broadband Internet access; lack of an adequate computer and lack of availability were also important for some nonusers. People who didn’t use the Internet at all – two-thirds of those who didn’t have broadband at home – reported lack of need or interest as their primary reason. People who used the Internet elsewhere (for example, at libraries) said affordability was the primary deterrent to home broadband adoption. This group represented almost one-fourth of those who don’t have broadband at home. Households that use dial-up service also cited affordability as the main reason for not adopting broadband at home. For rural residents using dial-up service, lack of broadband availability was a significant factor.

    Some of the demographic groups with lower-than-average broadband adoption rates in 2001 have since shown impressive gains, but sizable gaps remain among demographic groups defined by income, education, race and ethnicity. Similarly, despite gains in adoption rates within geographic areas, significant gaps in adoption still persist among the states, in some regions and between urban and rural locations.