The Digital Divide Is Closing, Even as New Fissures Surface
27 Pages Posted: 2 Apr 2016 Last revised: 28 Sep 2016
Date Written: September 27, 2016
Access to ubiquitous and affordable high-speed Internet is essential to many aspects of modern society. The Internet can assist in activities like accessing employment opportunities, healthcare options, affordable housing, and educational resources. However, millions of Americans still do not use the Internet, and even among those who do, the speed, quality and form of access can vary greatly. We seek to better understand the challenges faced by non-adopters and under-connected Americans using new data from the July 2015 Computer and Internet Use Supplement to the Current Population Survey.
We find that the nature of the digital divide is evolving. As usage habits and technologies change, new disparities are appearing, even while others gradually narrow. New divides based on the cost of owning multiple Internet-enabled devices appear to be surfacing. To better understand the changing needs of underserved communities, we examine three important and emerging trends.
First, we analyze survey data from Internet non-adopters. NTIA added new questions to its 2015 survey in order to better understand why households report not using the Internet. We allowed households to report multiple reasons for not using the Internet, enabling us to better understand why some households are not online. We also asked whether households lacking home Internet service would subscribe to such a service if it were offered at a lower price.
Second, we look specifically at one group of low adopters: rural communities. Americans in rural communities may face a disadvantage based on cumulative impact of various barriers to Internet use. For example, rural areas often face high broadband deployment costs, and may lack local facilities that offer public Internet access (e.g., community centers). Together, these factors may further depress Internet use in rural areas among those demographic groups already facing disparities, such low-income households. To understand these issues, we compare Internet use for similar demographic groups in rural and urban areas. Research suggests that, particularly among groups traditionally affected by the digital divide, Internet adoption rates are lower in rural areas.
Third, we focus on the diversification of devices used to access the Internet. The proliferation of devices means more people have more alternatives for getting online. However, this trend may open up a new digital divide, based on whether an individual has access to the right type of device for a particular task. Using a smartphone to access the Internet, for example, has qualitative strengths and weaknesses compared to using a laptop computer. To better understand this new divide, we investigate device use, particularly for those most likely to be on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Stimulating greater Internet use is an important and widely-prioritized public policy goal. In considering the best strategies to reach this goal, it is important to have a full, nuanced, and granular picture of the digital divide. Looking ahead, policy makers need to better understand how this divide is evolving with Internet and technology usage. Our paper aims to address these questions.
Keywords: broadband, digital divide, Internet use, survey, CPS
JEL Classification: C20, C42, D10, D12, J10, O38
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation