Who doesn’t like/want the internet?: an FCC survey

Chapter 9 of “America’s Plan,” which is how the FCC refers to its Connecting America plan in the body of the document that outlines the FCC strategy, is about internet adoption and utilization.

One of the key areas of focus for the FCC is trying to figure out who does not have broadband internet access at home, and why that is.  The agency bases its conclusions on a survey it conducted last fall about Americans’ use of technology.  In designing the survey, the FCC decided to place special emphasis on non-users of broadband at home.   Of 5,005 survey respondents, 2,334 did not have broadband access at home.

Connecting America doesn’t discuss the survey methodology, other than to say in a footnote that the sample size is too small to draw statistically valid conclusions.  The FCC draws conclusions anyway.

(In fairness, one should note that this is probably a fact of life in 21st century surveying.  The increasing sophistication of junk mail has meant that people simply throw away any mail that isn’t familiar.  People tend to embroider the truth when interviewed on the phone.  There’s no good way to figure a response rate for an internet survey.  And some segments of the population are notoriously difficult to sample effectively.  So what the FCC has, while not as rock solid as census data or exit polls, is likely as good as it gets.)

Here are the FCC results:

Who the non-users are

Demographic group————adoption rates at home

National average               65%

Asian Americans               67%

African Americans               59% 

Hispanics               49%

Rural Americans               50%

People with disabilities               42%

Income under $20,000/yr               40%

Americans 65+ years old               35%

Less educated/no high school degree               24%

So if you’re old, poor, have a disability and didn’t finish high school, chances are you don’t have broadband access at home.

Why non-users don’t have broadband

1.  The number one issue is cost, which is cited by about a third of non-users.  This may be the continuing expense of service (15% of nonusers), installation fees (9%), or having to buy a computer in the first place (10%).

2.  Lack of familiarity with computers or with the internet is the second issue, mentioned by 22% of the non-adopters.

3.  19% of non-adopters don’t find internet content particularly interesting or useful.  (I’m sure these people would change their minds if they could read this blog!)

Interestingly, non-users are not technophobes:  80% have satellite or cable TV, 70% have cellphones, and 42% have at least one working computer in their homes.  Among all survey respondents, 24% have disabilities, but 39% of the non-users have disabilities.  (I’m not sure what to make of this last sentence.  At the very least, it casts some doubt on the validity of the survey, since a 2002 Census Bureau study says only 18% of Americans have disabilities.)

What the FCC proposes

Three initiatives, one to address each of the three “barriers” to internet adoption:

1.  subsidize broadband internet service for low-income families, much in the way–and possibly using the same programs–the government currently subsidizes telephones service.

2.  launch a National Digital Literacy Program, with the aim of “training and outreach” in communities that have a lot of non-adopters.

3.  increase the relevance of the internet for non-users.  Government agencies that address non-user segments could require interaction through the internet.  Public and private groups can work with non-user segments to help them find relevant content on the internet.

I get it, sort of

I presume, although the report doesn’t say, that, other than the small group of non-users who think the internet is a “waste of time,” the rest have dialup.  So they have internet access, just not fast or user-friendly internet access.  Still, if you’re unemployed and looking for work, logging onto job sites, researching potential employers…can be a real pain in the neck with dialup.  So, too, can finishing a homework assignment for school–or getting a part-time job that requires computer/internet literacy.

Also, it may be the best approach politically to frame the broadband question as one of social justice, rather than of the competitiveness of US industry.

As well, the report makes it clear on almost every page that the FCC is going to do everything it can to speed the development of broadband internet.  So the bottom line for investors is to concentrate on finding winners from an impending wave of government action.

Still, the evangelism makes me a little uneasy.  I keep asking myself how the report would change if we substituted “reading material from ESPN.com” or “participating in Facebook” for adopting and using broadband internet.

We’d probably find the same community of non-users–older, poorer, less educated.  Then we’d be saying that the government should go into senior citizen or assisted living communities to teach the residents about the value in, and pleasure of, following sports statistics closely.  Maybe ESPN could be induced to offer discounted subscriptions to its premium content for low-income families, or persons over 65.  Suppose programs like this worked and non-users went from thinking that sports statistics are a waste of time to spending three hours a day trolling the various ESPN sites.  Would this be a good thing?

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