Gap seen as growing for millions not online

Andrea Peterson / The Washington Post /

Published Nov 14, 2013 at 04:00AM

Sixty-three years old and retired from a career as a welder, Jim Crawford doesn’t have much use for the Internet.

“I never had to use it on the job and didn’t have to use it at home for any reason,” said Crawford, who lives in Manhattan, Kan. “So I never really learned to do it — and never really got interested.”

The only time he goes online is to read through the automotive listings in the office of a local online auction company. If he sees something he likes, he says, he asks his mechanic to bid on it for him.

Crawford is far from alone: About 15 percent of Americans older than 18 don’t use the Internet, according to a study released in September by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. An additional 9 percent use it only outside the home.

They make up a shrinking, but not insignificant, segment of the population. And the gap between them and our increasingly digitized society is growing wider every day.

“There is a group of Americans being left behind as technology advances without them,” Lawrence Strickling, head of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, told an audience at the Brookings Institution recently.

“Americans who don’t have access to the Internet are increasingly cut off from job opportunities, educational resources, health care information, social networks, even government services.”

These people are being left out even as access to broadband — Internet service provided by cable, fiber, DSL and other high-speed networks, as opposed to the older, slower dial-up service — has expanded dramatically in the past 20 years. Because of a national infrastructure upgrade that Strickling compares to the rural electrification effort of the 1930s, well over 90 percent of U.S. households are either wired for high-speed broadband or can get high-speed wireless access.

But actual adoption of that service lags behind availability: In 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, the NTIA found that 69 percent of homes used broadband Internet service. That’s remarkable growth from 2000, when only 4 percent of homes used broadband, but it still indicates a significant gap.

So who are these Americans who remain disconnected from the online world?

“They are disproportionately older,” says Kathryn Zickuhr, who wrote the Pew study. According to the survey, which was done in May, 49 percent of non-Internet users are older than 65.

They also are, in general, less educated. Although nearly everyone in the United States with a college degree is online, 41 percent of adults without a high school diploma are offline.

The digital divide linked to household income is less extreme but still substantial. Nearly a quarter of adults in households making less than $30,000 per year don’t use the Internet, the survey showed, as opposed to fewer than 1 in 20 adults in households with annual incomes above $75,000.

There also are racial disparities — particularly when it comes to Internet use at home. Seventy-nine percent of whites surveyed by Pew used the Internet at home versus 70 percent of African-Americans and 63 percent of Hispanics. Urban and suburban Americans are more likely than rural residents to be online at home.

The Pew survey asked these people why they don’t go online. Perhaps surprisingly, cost wasn’t the most common answer.

The most prevalent reason, given by 34 percent of offline respondents, was that the Internet is not relevant to them. Like Jim Crawford, they aren’t interested, don’t want to use it or have no need for it.

“Man, it just drives me nuts,” Crawford says of the young people he sees consumed by their smartphones. “It seems like all kids do is play on video games or the Internet and never go outside. That might be part of the reason I’m not interested in it — just seems like there’s so much else to do.”

A slightly smaller group, 32 percent, cited problems with using the technology: They said that getting online was difficult or frustrating, or that they were worried about issues such as privacy or hackers.

As Zickuhr points out, those reasons are “pretty interrelated in many ways. Many of the people who think it’s too hard may also think the Internet is not relevant or would not be useful to them.”

Nineteen percent of non- users cited concerns about the expense of owning a computer or paying for an Internet connection.

Like Strickling, most policymakers would disagree with that sense of irrelevance. They point out that people who aren’t online have a harder time accessing vital services such as Medicare and Medicaid or the new health care exchanges created under President Barrack Obama’s health care law. They can’t perform useful daily functions that most Americans take for granted, such as looking up directions when traveling, using email for speedy written correspondence or being able to see and talk with faraway friends or relatives via Skype or FaceTime. They can’t easily search for competitive prices for housing, cars, appliances or other goods.

Perhaps most important, they are at a major disadvantage when looking for a job: NTIA statistics show that 73 percent of unemployed Internet users reported going online to look for work.

The Pew study found that only 14 percent of offline adults were previous Internet users. There’s good reason to believe if the rest of them tried it, they would find the service rewarding rather than irrelevant.

“We’ll hear anecdotally about seniors who start using Facebook or another site and how that lets them connect to younger generations, connect to their families and connect to friends in different places,” Zickuhr said. “A lot of seniors, for instance, will become more enthusiastic about using some online services once they see what exactly that could mean for them.”

Seeta Peña Gangadharan, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, described “intergenerational interactions between seniors who were timid and concerned about going online” and younger relatives. Seniors often rely on grandchildren to assist them, she says, then realize they need to learn how to use the technology themselves when those family members move away.

The technology institute studied a Philadelphia project called the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program that worked with local social service and community organizing groups to welcome offline adults “into online worlds in a way that really makes them comfortable.” Once these people started to get involved, she said, “users really did recognize the value of the Internet and they thought it was incredibly relevant to their lives.”

A program funded by the AARP Foundation and administered by Family Matters of Greater Washington seemed to confirm that point. Using an established social service organization, it distributed iPads and offered computer classes as well as discounted home Internet service to seniors, many of whom had never been online. Two months into the pilot program this summer, only five of the original 55 participants had dropped out.

The advent of smartphones is also helping to narrow the Internet gap, says Lee Rainie, director of Pew’s Internet project. At a recent Washington Post forum, he said the relatively fast and inexpensive devices, which provide Internet connection via cellphone networks, have had a particularly positive effect on African-American and Latino communities.

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