Interest High, But Internet Too Costly for Inner City

A survey sponsored by FleetBoston of inner-city residents in five Northeastern cities cites high interest in using the Internet, but adoption of the medium is hurt by a lack of familiarity with the Internet and the high cost of equipment and access.

Indeed, the issue of familiarity may be the single largest reason stopping many people from using the Internet. The study, which polled adults with reported annual household incomes of $40,000 or less, showed that a majority, 56 percent, said they knew not much or nothing at all about the Internet though 80 percent of the group said they would be willing to learn more if the opportunity were present.

The responses train a spotlight on the persistent challenges technology companies, and society as a whole, face in trying to bridge the so-called digital divide — the gap in access to technology that exists between wealthier Americans and those with lesser means.

“The survey points out that the digital divide is not only an income-based problem, but one of race and educational levels,” said Gail Snowden, executive vice president and managing director of the Community Banking Group at FleetBoston, who’s foundation sponsored the survey.

The University of Massachusetts compiled the results after polling 1,600 residents of Boston, New York’s Harlem and Brooklyn neighborhoods, Newark, N.J., and Hartford, Conn.

Fewer than half, or 42 percent, of the respondents said they have computers in the home, and only 32 percent are connected to the Internet. By contrast, in a separate study, more than three-quarters, or 77 percent, of those with incomes over $40,000 said they use a computer in the home and 61 percent are very comfortable using the Internet.

Snowden said the gap in computer access and Internet usage is leaving many members of society behind in the new economy.

“The good news is, all people, even with little Internet familiarity, show a strong willingness to go online if they are given the tools and the training to do so,” she said.

While the survey findings suggest that income levels help define the digital dividing line, computer access alone does not bridge the technology gap — helping individuals and families more comfortable with the technology and navigating the Internet also plays a major role.

“The challenge is to offer broad-based solutions, which address access, training, and content that can make the real difference,” Snowden said. “Much of the attention around the digital divide has been focused on children in school; what has been overlooked is the important role of adults in the home. What adults need is their own familiarity with the Internet to the benefit of themselves, children and the community at large.”

Among the survey’s findings of households with annual incomes less than $40,000:

  • 25 percent of the respondents knew quite a bit or a great deal about the Internet, but 56 percent reported knowing not much or nothing at all.
  • Respondents who said they knew not much or nothing at all about the Internet varied widely from city to city: Newark (69 percent); Hartford (60 percent); Brooklyn (58 percent), Harlem (53 percent) and Boston (45 percent).
  • Familiarity with the Internet also varied by race and income. For example, 44 percent of African Americans with incomes under $40,000 reported knowing nothing at all about the Internet, compared to 15 percent for African Americans with incomes over $40,000.
  • Almost one in two families without a computer (46 percent) said that purchasing a computer was not very or not affordable at all.
  • While affordability is a problem among low- to moderate-income households without a computer, it especially impacts African American and Hispanic households: 64 percent of African Americans did not own a computer, compared to 55 percent of Hispanics and 42 percent of Europeans surveyed.
  • As education increases so does computer access. Among those who earn less than $40,000 a year and have less than a high school education, 70 percent were without a computer, versus 40 percent for those with a college degree.
  • The study showed that individuals want to gain a comfort level with computers and the Internet through training: 80 percent of those surveyed who are not at all familiar with the Internet, said they would be eager or likely to participate in computer and Internet training if given a free computer and free Internet access.
  • Four out of 10 said they would prefer training in a small group with their top choice in a community center.

Fleet, which sponsored the survey and also has one of the country’s more aggressive programs to encourage the adoption of online banking, asked respondents to the survey if they would use online banking services, given access and training in the technology. About 26 percent of those with incomes less than $40,000 reported that they would be very likely or somewhat likely to use Internet banking within the next year, given the conditions.

According to the survey, only 3 percent of survey respondents said that they use the Internet to find information about their communities, which may indicate that the Internet may be underutilized as an local, information source or that that community content is still lacking, the study’s sponsors said.

“Content on the Internet appears to be significantly underdeveloped as a useful source of information about the community,” said Michele Courton Brown, president of the FleetBoston Financial Foundation, who pointed to poor or little information on the Internet on the subject of jobs, affordable housing, neighborhood issues, day care, and school programs in the inner cities.

Among households with incomes below $40,000, the city of Newark had the lowest level of computer ownership at 35 percent, while Boston had the highest at 48 percent and the other communities range in the middle, including Harlem (41 percent), Hartford (42 percent) and Brooklyn (44 percent).

Reprinted from internet.com’s miami.internet.com.

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