US digital divide narrows again, but many Americans just don't want the Internet in their homes

Martyn Warwick
By Martyn Warwick

Oct 17, 2016

via Flickr © Gavin St. Ours (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr © Gavin St. Ours (CC BY 2.0)

  • In July 2015, 73 per cent of US households had Internet access
  • But getting the remainder on board is proving difficult - and not just for technical reasons
  • Huge investment by telcos and government initiatives to tempt people to go online
  • But a significant hard core of Internet refuseniks say they will never join

New(ish) data from the the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) shows that whilst the American digital divide has narrowed greatly in recent years it remains substantial, not necessarily because broadband access is still limited or even entirely unavailable in some parts of the States, but because of the large number of refuseniks who simply do not want to be part of the Internet revolution. It seems that more than 24 million US households are resolutely determined not to be part of the digital future.

It takes time to collate, analyse and interpret the massive amounts of data to collected in a US census. That's why the NTIA, which is an agency of the Department of Commerce, has just released its July 2015 "Computer and Internet Use Supplement" to the Current Population Survey. As a snapshot it is already 15 months old but it nonetheless provides the most comprehensive picture available of the unvarnished state of Internet broadband adoption, and what it shows is that despite sometimes almost evangelical blandishments on the part of telcos, service providers and the US government itself to get everyone across the nation to the embrace the Internet, a lot of people just refuse to be converted.

It is estimated that, over the past 20 years telcos, service providers and hardware vendors have invested  an average of US$70 billion per annum on deploying or upgrading comms with the result that, according to the Current Population Survey, fewer than a million US homes are now totally beyond the reach of broadband access of one form or another.

Of course, quality of service and the costs of going broadband vary according to a variety of factors, but most Americans have now bitten the economic bullet and are, however reluctantly,  paying the often high price of being connected to the web. The NTIA’s data shows that the percentage of US households with Internet access rose from the  26 per cent (or some 27 million households) recorded back in 1998 to 73 per cent (or more than 92 million households) in 2015. Furthermore, 79 per cent of households can now access the Internet either at home of in a school, a local library, or in the workplace.

However, 33 million households still do not use the internet and the data suggests that the digital divide between urban and rural areas remains intractably wide and deep. In July last year 69 per cent of US residents living in rural and remote areas were online as compared to 75 percent of urban residents. Interestingly some 26 million US households have never been online, but only a quarter of them say that is because they can't afford it. They say the reason is that either don't need it or don't want any Internet access at all.

The "digital don't-needs and don't-wants" dig their heels in

Much time, resource and money as been expended on trying to convince the hardcore base of refuseniks to change their minds and join the majority of their countrymen but successes have been few and far between. Reasons given for refusing to sanction broadband Internet connection in refusenik's homes range from affordability, privacy, confidentiality and the security of data, through to suspicions about government surveillance and attempts to stifle or negate states rights via corporate globalist propaganda as well as disruption to and attacks on conservative values and the sanctity of home life.

The United States Telecom Association (USTelecom) the venerable industry association that has been representing and espousing the interests of US telecoms-related businesses since 1897, is so concerned about the number of people who want nothing to do with the Internet that it is lobbying for the government to undertake deep research into the area.

The current NTIA survey data indicates that 6.3 million US households that did have Internet access at one time another, while conceding that broadband can be a boon, say they just don't want access to it in their own homes and would rather go online for a limited period and for a specific purpose in an Internet cafe or library. The rest prefer not to have any Internet access at all.

In early 2009, the US Congress passed the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act", which resulted in a $7.2 billion grant being awarded to the NTIA and the US Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service to increase and expand  broadband access across the United States.

Some 60 per cent or so of that money ($4.7 billion) was allocated to the deployment of implementation of broadband infrastructure and to create and sustain a nationwide map of broadband proficiency and availability. This, the BTOP, (or Broadband Technology Opportunities Program) has a remit to reduce the digital divide between various demographics and to provide "sustainable broadband adoption" by increasing broadband Internet usage in areas "where broadband technology has been unavailable or under-utilised".

The scope of the remit includes digital literacy training and outreach campaigns to educate the general public on the importance and relevance of broadband in everyday life. Many of the refuseniks say that are both suspicious of and not interested in such outreach campaigns and prefer to exercise their democratic right to dissent from the majority viewpoint and trend and not accept Internet access.

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