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The Digital Dirt Road Divide

  |  February 23, 2004   |  Comments

Internet penetration among U.S. rural residents has risen, but the community still lags behind its suburban and urban counterparts.

The crop of U.S. Internet users may be growing, but a Pew Internet & American Life Project report found a dirt road divide among the urban and rural penetration rates. While two-thirds of urban and suburban Americans are online, only about half of their rural counterparts are connected.

Internet Penetration by Community
2000 2003
Rural 41% 52%
Suburban 55% 66%
Urban 51% 67%
Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project

While rural users' online activities are on par with the urban and suburban groups, they are less likely to have a broadband connection, and they encounter fewer ISP choices. The findings, culled from data that was collected in surveys between March and August 2003, revealed that 19 percent of online rural residents have broadband connections at home, compared to 36 percent of urban residents and 32 percent of suburbanites. Availability is likely to be a factor as roughly 25 percent of rural users didn't think they were able to get a broadband connection in their community, compared to 5 percent of urban users, and 10 percent of those in the suburbs.

Percentage of Those Who Have Participated
in Popular Online Activities
Rural Suburban Urban
Send or read email 90% 93% 92%
Use a search engine 88% 91% 89%
Look for info about a hobby 78% 76% 75%
Look for health info 69% 66% 65%
Surf for fun 69% 65% 69%
Visit a government Web site 67% 66% 65%
Play a game 42% 38% 39%
Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project

While Peter Bell, research associate at the Pew Internet Project and principal author of the report, says that the study doesn't make a distinction as to the degree professional experience plays in rural, suburban and urban Internet access, the data indicates that age, income and education are contributing factors.

According to Pew, 22 percent of the rural population is over the age of 65, compared to 16 percent of suburban and 14 percent of the urban population. Additionally, the Pew report identified an annual income of $30,000 as the threshold for Internet usage, noting that 47 percent of the rural community earns less per year. Just 29 percent of suburbanites and 39 percent of urban dwellers are in the below $30,000 income range.

Twice as many urbanites than rural dwellers have earned a four-year degree (20 percent vs. 10 percent). College degrees were also earned by 18 percent of the suburban population. The report indicates that educational levels correlate to usage.

Bell notes that the survey produced some unexpected results. "We found that most (84 percent) rural users with three years or more of online experience report that they like computers and technology, whereas 75 percent of their urban counterparts and 76 percent of their suburban counterparts say this. This was surprising, because among newcomers, it's the reverse. [Half] of rural users with fewer than three years online report 'mixed feelings' towards computers and technology, whereas 32 percent of comparable urban users say this and 27 percent of suburban users say so."


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