Digital Divide Shows Signs of Narrowing

More Americans than ever have Internet access and own computers, according to a report by the Department of Commerce, which suggests the digital divide may be starting to narrow.

The report, “Falling Through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion,” was produced by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and its Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA). It found that virtually every group in the US has participated in the sharp upward trend of Americans to connect their homes to the Internet.

“I am pleased to report that the geographical aspect of what had been a digital divide has virtually disappeared,” said Gregory Rohde, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information and NTIA administrator, said. “Rural areas, once left behind, are catching up quickly with other parts of the country and have surpassed some of the central cities in their Internet use.”

The data show that the overall level of US digital inclusion is rapidly increasing. As evidence of the rapid rise in the level of digital inclusion, the report cited:

  • An increase in the share of households with Internet access, rising from 26.2 percent in December 1998 to 41.5 percent in August 2000, an increase of 58 percent;
  • A rise in the number of households with access to computers, up from 42.1 percent in December 1998 to 51 percent this year, a rise of 21 percent;
  • A 31.9 million increase in the number of Americans online over the previous 20 months, to 116.5 million;
  • A hike in the number of Americans using the Internet, from 32.7 percent online in December 1998 to 44 percent in August 2000;

As research by private firms has discovered, the government data found the disparity in Internet usage between men and women has disappeared.

“This report shows that, while income and education still explain much of the difference in Internet access and use, the biggest gains recently are among those with average incomes and education levels,” said Robert Shapiro, under secretary of commerce and administrator of the Economics and Statistics Administration.

The data show that the overall level of US digital inclusion is rapidly increasing:

  • More than half of all households (51.0 percent) have computers, up from 42.1 percent in December 1998. There were 116.5 million Americans online at some location in August 2000, 31.9 million more than there were only 20 months earlier.
  • The share of individuals using the Internet rose by 35.8 percent, from 32.7 percent in December 1998 to 44.4 percent in August 2000. If growth continues at that rate, more than half of all Americans will be using the Internet by the middle of 2001.
  • Americans at every income level are connecting at far higher rates from their homes, particularly at the middle income levels. Internet access among households earning $35,000 to $49,000 rose from 29.0 percent in December 1998 to 46.1 percent in August 2000. Today, more than two-thirds of all households earning more than $50,000 have Internet connections (60.9 percent for households earning $50,000 to $74,999 and 77.7 percent for households earning above $75,000).
  • Access to the Internet is also expanding across every education level, particularly for those with some high school or college education. Households headed by someone with “some college experience” showed the greatest expansion in Internet penetration of all education levels, rising from 30.2 percent in December 1998 to 49.0 percent in August 2000.
  • Blacks and Hispanics, while they still lag behind other groups, have shown impressive gains in Internet access. Black households are now more than twice as likely to have home access than they were 20 months ago, rising from 11.2 percent to 23.5 percent. Hispanic households have also experienced a tremendous growth rate during this period, rising from 12.6 percent to 23.6 percent.

Nonetheless, a digital divide remains or has expanded slightly in some cases, even while Internet access and computer ownership are rising rapidly for almost all groups.

Persons with a disability are only half as likely to have access to the Internet as those without a disability: 21.6 percent compared to 42.1 percent. And while just under 25 percent of those without a disability have never used a personal computer, close to 60 percent of those with a disability fall into that category. Among those with a disability, people who have impaired vision and problems with manual dexterity have even lower rates of Internet access and are less likely to use a computer regularly than people with hearing and mobility problems.

Large gaps also remain regarding Internet penetration rates among households of different races and ethnic origins. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have maintained the highest level of home Internet access at 56.8 percent. Blacks and Hispanics, at the other end of the spectrum, continue to experience the lowest household Internet penetration rates at 23.5 percent and 23.6 percent, respectively. Large gaps for Blacks and Hispanics remain when measured against the national average Internet penetration rate.

The divide between Internet access rates for Black households and the national average rate was 18.0 percentage points in August 2000 (a 23.5 percent penetration rate for Black households, compared to 41.5 percent for households nationally). That gap is 3.0 percentage points wider than the 15.0 percentage point gap that existed in December 1998.

The report also examined how Americans are using the Internet:

  • E-mail remains the Internet’s killer application — 79.9 percent of Internet users reported using email.
  • Online shopping and bill paying are seeing the fastest growth.
  • Low-income users were the most likely to report using the Internet to look for jobs.
  • Schools, libraries, and other public access points continue to serve those groups that do not have access at home. For example, certain groups are far more likely to use public libraries to access the Internet, such as the unemployed, Blacks, and Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders.

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