Spurning the Internet: Many Americans not online at all--by choice

A study released recently by the Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that broadband adoption in the United States has slowed considerably in 2010 after a decade of steady growth. And a surprising number of people still don't use the Internet and don't want to.

It's common to assume that just about everybody is online these days. The Internet's gone from being the exclusive tool of government and scientists, to a consumer novelty, to a part of everyday life – for most of us.

But a study released recently by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 66 percent of Americans have a broadband connection at home, which is only slightly higher than the 63 percent reported a year ago.

Perhaps more surprising, the study found that 21 percent of American adults still don’t use the Internet at all. And 90 percent of those nonusers say they don’t want to.

Broadband adoption is a priority of the Obama administration, set forth in the National Broadband Plan, which has set a goal of 90 percent broadband adoption by 2020.

Between June 2000 and May 2010, broadband adoption in the United States has grown from 3 percent to 66 percent, with the biggest one-year gain coming from March 2005 to March 2006, when adoption increased from 28 percent to 42 percent. Dial-up connections, meanwhile, have decreased from a high of 41 percent of U.S. homes in April 2001 to 5 percent today.


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It hasn’t been all double-digit growth: Pew’s annual survey has found relatively small rates of growth in previous year. But the 3 percent increase of the past year is the smallest so far. One area of growth the survey found was among African-American households, where adoption grew from 46 percent in 2009 to 56 percent this year, by far the largest increase among any demographics group, the report states.

As for the people who do not use the Internet, it’s not entirely because of a lack of availability. Thirty-four percent of nonusers said they either live in a house with an Internet connection – they just don’t use it – or have been online before but are no longer.

The other 66 percent “are not tied in any obvious way to online life,” the report states. But they don’t seem to think they’re missing anything either: Only one in 10 of nonusers said they would like to get online.

The Federal Communications Commission, a principal player in the National Broadband Plan, agreed with the study’s findings, saying it underscores the need to pursue broadband adoption.

The "Pew report confirms what the FCC found in our broadband survey last year: There are still too many barriers to broadband adoption in America,” said FCC spokeswoman Jen Howard. “That's why the National Broadband Plan lays out a strategy for improving digital literacy and ensuring that all Americans can take full advantage of the benefits of broadband.”

But not all of the respondents in the Pew survey agree that it’s the government’s job to lead the charge toward high-speed connections. Fifty-three percent said it shouldn’t be a government priority; 42 percent said it should be. The specific responses were:

  • 26 percent of Americans say that expansion of affordable broadband access should not be attempted by government.
  • 27 percent said it was “not too important.”
  • 30 percent said it was an important priority.
  • 11 percent said it should be a top priority.

Among other findings, the Pew report concluded that Americans have mixed views about the importance of having broadband access. They asked whether a lack of broadband was a major disadvantage, minor disadvantage or not a disadvantage is a variety of areas. Among the results:

Government services:

  • Major disadvantage – 29%
  • Minor disadvantage –27%
  • Not a disadvantage – 37%

Job opportunities/gaining career skills:

  • Major disadvantage – 43%
  • Minor disadvantage –23%
  • Not a disadvantage – 28%

Obtaining health information:

  • Major disadvantage – 34%
  • Minor disadvantage –28%
  • Not a disadvantage – 35%

Keeping up with news and information:

  • Major disadvantage – 23%
  • Minor disadvantage –27%
  • Not a disadvantage – 47%

Keeping up with what is happening in their communities:

  • Major disadvantage – 19%
  • Minor disadvantage –32%
  • Not a disadvantage – 45%

The nationwide survey of 2,252 adults was conducted by telephone by Princeton Survey Research Associates International.

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