After posting my interviews with several of the Democratic presidential candidates last week regarding the digital divide, some of you emailed me and asked about the actual status of the divide here in the U.S. As it turns out, there’s a new survey out this week that sheds some light on where we’re making progress and where we aren’t.
The Pew Internet and American Life Project is one of the most respected research institutions when it comes to understanding the Internet’s impact on American society. They’ve consistently examined a diverse range of issues for a number of years, and I’ve cited their work previously on the blog. So their timing couldn’t have been better with their latest report on the state of at-home broadband Internet access, given how I just met up with four presidential candidates last week and asked them about digital divide policy.
In general, the report found that nearly half of all adults - 47 percent - had broadband Internet access at home when the survey was taken earlier this year. Broadband is by far the dominant way that households with Internet access are going online, with 70 percent of those households relying on broadband, in contrast to the 23 percent using dialup. Interestingly, the rate of households purchasing broadband for the first time is actually down significantly, with only a 12 percent increase over the course of 12 months, compared with a 40 percent increase the prior year and a whopping 67 percent increase in 2003-2004. But it’s likely that this is because those families that are in a position to acquire broadband have already done so. Overall, 71 percent of all adults now use the Internet, whether at home, work, school or elsewhere, in contrast to 27 percent who don’t have access, and two percent who do have access but choose not to use it.
Historically, much of the concern over the digital divide has been about how different ethnic groups have inequitable access to the Internet, with African Americans and Latinos typically trailing whites and Asian Americans. The Pew survey found that 48 percent of non-Latino white households have broadband, in contrast to 40 percent of African Americans and 29 percent of Latinos. In prior surveys, African Americans have lagged behind their white peers by a period of two years, but the current data suggests that gap has shrunk to just one year. In fact, since early 2005, broadband adoption by African Americans has grown by 186 percent. When taking in to account all forms of access, broadband or otherwise, 62 percent of African Americans access the Net at least occasionally, compared with 73 percent of whites and 56 percent of Latinos.
The biggest indicators as to whether a person will have broadband at home remains income and education levels. For example, while 76 percent of persons making more than $75,000 a year have broadband at home, only 30% of those making $30,000 or more have high-speed access. It’s worth noting that this particular demographic had a 43 percent increase in broadband over the previous year, though. The education gap is even more dramatic, with 47 percent of adults with a college degree having broadband, compared with just 10 percent of those who didn’t graduate from high school.
What exactly can we glean from these numbers? It’s clear that Pew’s research has shown steady growth rates among demographic groups that have lagged behind historically, while groups that generally have had broadband access have seen much slower growth. In particular, race appears to be much less of a factor than it was five or 10 years ago. Perhaps of greater concern is the lack of progress being made among low-income families and those with limited formal education. The skills gap, in particular, has consistently appeared across digital divide research for more than a decade now. So for families that didn’t have the opportunity to complete their high school degree or GED, they remain entrenched on the wrong side of the divide.
Nonetheless, shouldn’t the report be treated as signs of progress for many groups? Progress, yes, but that’s no excuse for complacency. In fact, because the conventional wisdom generally suggests that most people are online, we end up putting more of a burden on those families who lack access. Since “mainstream” America seems to be wired to the hilt, we assume all too easily that all families have access, and those who don’t must have chosen not to go online. We expect people to be able to apply for jobs, access government services or do their schoolwork using Internet access because of the appearance of ubiquity rather than the reality of it.
What does the latest Pew research mean to you? Does it reflect your own experiences with your students and their families? Do you see the divide as being largely a skills gap? A poverty gap? A racial gap? And what can we as educators and concerned citizens be doing about it? -andy