Myth #6: People want internet access but can’t get it.

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Myth

More than one-third of Americans lack internet access because the price is either too high or the service is not available where they live.

Where this notion comes from

Susan Crawford makes this charge in her book Captive Audience, but she misreads a report from the  National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an agency of the Department of Commerce. The report cites people not being interested in broadband as the #1 reason why they don’t subscribe, not price or availability.

Facts

Read the following facts in the FCC’S Internet Access Service Report (June 30, 2012)

  • The total the number of broadband connections has increased to 100 million. Between June 2011 and June 2012, broadband connections increased by 54% and the percentage of fixed connection speeds qualifying as broadband increased to 64%.
  • Consumers are continuing to migrate to faster broadband speed tiers.
  • Satellite broadband is available today to 99% of Americans.  This service continues to improve.

Read the NTIA report that Susan Crawford references in her book.

Analysis

To build her case that “more than one-third of Americans without internet access”, Crawford cites the report from the U.S. Department of Commerce, “Exploring the Digital Nation: Computer and Internet Use at Home”, a survey based on some 55,000 households, which is to be representative of America. Crawford fails to point out that the number one reason why one third of Americans don’t have internet is not because they can’t afford it, but because they don’t want it (47%). The issues of affordability (24%) and an inadequate computer (15 %) affect fewer Americans.

The largest group of people who don’t have internet access claim that the internet has no value for them, not because they can’t afford it or it is not accessible.  Crawford exaggerates the number of people who claim that they can’t afford or access broadband internet.

With the rise of inexpensive smartphones and tablets, we can at least see that the remaining unconnected Americans will have a better chance to get internet access. The report was published in 2010, and today, more than half of all Americans have a smartphone.

It is important to note that there is a subset of Americans who lack basic English and literacy skills, and they will likely never subscribe to broadband until they can read English, or Spanish for that matter. So there is still work to be done to teach English.  It is the first step in digital literacy.

In developed countries, some 10-15% of the adult population does not get online. Similarly to the US, there are people who are just not interested in the internet.  They may like to do other things with their time: enjoy the outdoors, work with their hands, or spend time with family and friends offline.  It may be that they may shun computers.  Perhaps they feel alienated by technology.  However, with mobile devices, people who have never been online, get online.

One of my professors in college has never used a computer–or even a mobile phone.  He is a recognized composer and pianist.  He lives in a world of music and sees no need for internet access.

To be sure, as the economy and government services become more digital , those who remain offline will be at at a disadvantage.  Consider in Denmark that beginning in 2015 all communication with municipalities will be digital, that is via email or a governmental website.  There will be no one to answer the phone at all. Those who don’t have a computer or don’t know how to use one will go the library for help.

Reality

Almost every American who wants broadband can get it. The barriers of price and usability are falling all the time.