Rural America Slow to Adopt Broadband

Americans in rural areas of the country trail their urban counterparts in broadband adoption. A data memo, “Rural Broadband Internet Use,” from Pew Internet & American Life Project finds adoption in rural areas occurring at a faster pace than in more populated regions.

U.S. Home Broadband Penetration by Community Type 2001 - 2005
Click on graphic to view chart

While the country as a whole experiences a plateau in broadband uptake, the rate of upgrades in less-populated areas continues to rise. In 2003, nine percent of rural residents had home broadband. In two surveys conducted last fall, the number of households with high-speed was 24 percent. City and suburban areas moved from 22 percent to 39 percent in the same period.

U.S. Adult Internet Use by Community Type, 2001-2005
Click on graphic to view chart

Internet usage as a whole in rural America, at home, work or elsewhere, lags eight percent behind. The percentage difference was twice that at the time of 2003 study.

Though several technologies to deliver broadband exist, not all are available in remote areas. The expense of wiring areas for digital subscriber line (DSL) service or cable raises the cost of those services in areas where population density isn’t high.

“If you can solve the availability problem tomorrow, you would get higher adoption in rural areas,” said Pew Internet Associate Director, John Horrigan.

DSL and cable modem connection nearly tie as the most common means for broadband access in rural, urban and suburban regions, combining to account for 90 percent of broadband subscribers. While wireless is named as an option to reach households in the country as it’s expensive to wire for high-speed access, it only serves six percent of households in more remote regions and five percent in more populated areas.

U.S. Adult Internet Access by Community Type, September-December, 2005
Rural (%) Urban and Suburban (%)
Home broadband 24 39
Home dial-up 29 21
Work only 5 5
Other 3 3
Don’t know 1 2
Non-Internet user 38 30
Note: Project combined Sept-December 2005 surveys of 5,262 adult Americans, 3,508 of whom were internet users.
Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2006

Online activities differ somewhat between different area segments. Urban and suburban dwellers use the Web more to book travel, bank, check classifieds and read blogs. Their rural counterparts tend to download screensavers and computer games, take a class for credit and play fantasy sports more often than big city dwellers.

U.S. Adult Online Activities by Community Type, March-December, 2005
Rural Internet Users (%) Urban & Suburban Internet Users (%)
Buy or make a reservation for travel service 51 65
Bank online 34 43
Online classifieds 30 37
Read a blog 21 28
Download screensavers 28 22
Download computer games 25 20
Class for credit 15 11
Fantasy sports 9 7
Notes: 1.Results are from surveys deployed in March, May, September, and December 2005. Number of respondents is as follows:
1. n=2,201 adults (1,450 Internet users) for March.
2. n=2,001 adults (1,336 Internet users) for May.
3. n=2,251 adults (1,577 Internet users) for September.
4. n=3,011 adults (1,931 Internet users) for December.
2. Margin of error is error is ±3% for Internet users in the March, May, and December surveys and ±2% for Internet users in the December 2005 survey.
Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2006

The Internet acts as a “distance killer” for some in remote areas. Internet users might take a class online when there’s no institution nearby. The same is true for activities such as downloadable video games when there may not be a convenient electronics or software store.

Conversely, certain activities like banking offline provides opportunity. The report speculates banking is a “going to town” occasion. The memo also suggests rural banks may not provide an online presence for customers.

Demographic factors contribute to slower adoption rates of broadband in rural areas. Rural America has a greater share of older citizens than more populated areas. Forty-three percent of rural Americans are over 50, 18 percent are over 65. In non-rural areas the percentage of the population over 50 is 38, and 16 percent are over 65.

“Because rural Americans are older and tend to have less Internet experience, they do fewer things on the Internet,” said Horrigan. “It’s usually when people get extremely active and engaged when they embrace the Internet.”

Incomes tend to be lower in less populated areas. Thirty-three percent of respondents in these areas report annual incomes below $30,000, versus 24 percent of non-rural respondents. Education also plays a role. The population in less-populated areas tends to be less educated. Twenty-nine percent of non-rural Americans have college degrees or higher, versus 18 percent of rural Americans.

The memo draws its findings from a daily tracking survey on Americans’ use of the Internet conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates. Data are from two surveys; one conducted in September, one in December of 2005. The surveys had 5,262 respondents, 3,508 were Internet users. Rural respondents numbered 1,129 with 681 of them Internet users and 252 home broadband users.

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