One third of Americans are not connected to broadband. Why?
That's the simple question the Federal Communications Commission sought to answer in their Broadband Adoption and Use in America survey released this week. The FCC's report identifies three main categories of concern that keep folk from plugging in: affordability, digital literacy and relevance.
Finding ways to overcome these objections will determine whether the US can bridge a stubborn digital divide that threatens to stifle innovation and keep 93 million citizens disconnected from the 21st century.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said that "a digital divide is an opportunity divide" and that we need "to make sure that all Americans have the skills and means to fully participate in the digital economy."
What makes the non-adopters such a difficult population is that there is usually more than one reason for them not to have broadband. So if the price is reduced, there are still fears of what their kids may be exposed to or relevance of what's on the Internet or digital literacy or all three. The author of the report, John Horrigan, suggested that "lowering costs of service or hardware, helping people develop online skills, and informing them about applications relevant to their lives are all key to sustainable adoption."
Helpfully, the report creates four categories of non-adopters:
• Near Converts -- they make up nearly a third of the broadband hold-outs and typically have a positive attitude towards the Internet. Many have dial-up or have access at work, but are put off by the cost. Mostly young, with a medium age of 45.
• Digital Hopefuls -- these represent 22% of non-adopters, like the idea of being online, but lack the resources. Few of them have a computer or feel comfortable with technology. About half cite cost as a barrier, but also mention digital literacy as a problem. This group is heavily represented by Hispanics and African-Americans.
• Digitally Uncomfortable -- 20% of non-adopters fall into this category, which mirror the Near Converts in that they have the resources for access, but not the inclination to be online. Many lack the skills to find the Internet useful and are cool on the medium's relevance to their lives.
• Digitally Distant -- these make up 28% of those not connected to broadband and see little reason for being so. They don't see the Internet as useful for learning and a majority see it as too dangerous for kids. About half are retired and about the same numbers see no relevance or have issues with digital literacy.
While it's long been held that cost is a major factor in the lack of take-up of broadband, what these findings show is that fears (whether rational or not) of what consumers and their children will be exposed to online is a major obstacle to connecting to high-speed Internet access.
There is an urgent need for extensive digital and media literacy skills, not only to be taught in schools, but also for parents and seniors. And this should be part of a national (and international) effort to build 21st century citizenship in order for everyone to fully participate in an always on, intensely connected world. The FCC's Broadband Plan due out on St. Patrick's Day next month should go a long way in laying the groundwork for this compelling effort.