Monday, March 08, 2010


Who’s not on the Internet?

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has reported on a survey of non-Internet households:

For many Americans, having high-speed access to the Internet at home is as vital as electricity, heat and water. And yet about one-third of the population, 93 million people, have elected not to connect.

It’s not surprising that the ranks of the non-connected are disproportionately

  1. older,
  2. rural residents, and
  3. less affluent.

It’s also not surprising that the reasons given for not opting into the Information Superhighway (remember that moniker?) include

  1. cost,
  2. discomfort with computers, and
  3. the view that that the Internet is a "waste of time".

Congress wants the FCC to provide a plan for increasing the adoption of broadband Internet access, and the guy who managed the survey says that lack of Internet access puts those people “at a distinct disadvantage.”

Well, yes and no.

In the early 1990s, as the worldwide web was beginning to take off, a couple in their 80s asked me if they “need a computer.” Hm, I said, that depends upon what you mean by “need.” I suggested that if they wanted to learn about computers and the Internet, and embrace the upcoming technology, they absolutely should get a computer. But they don’t need one. I still think that’s true.

Whether you need to be on the Internet, and are “at a distinct disadvantage” without it, is still a question of what you will do with it, and what stage of your life you’re in.

Children — and families with children — are almost certainly at a distinct disadvantage without ready access to the Internet. The educational and social opportunities that such children will miss are crucial, and that lack will affect the children for the rest of their lives. Unfamiliarity with using computers and the Internet will limit job possibilities. For a child in school today, not being on the Internet is almost like not being able to read and write.

Middle-aged adults may be at a disadvantage if they have a job — or hope to get one — for which it’s important to be computer- and Internet-savvy. If they have school-aged kids, of course, they should also be providing Internet access to them, and it’d also be good for them to be able to supervise what they do, and perhaps help them.

But there are plenty of people who can happily choose whether or not to deal with the Internet without being at any disadvantage for their choice. At least for now, we can still buy things in stores, we can still listen to the radio and read newspapers, we can still call people on telephones, we can still watch television. For those who feel the Internet is a waste of time, it probably is. We can easily get through life without the Internet, even if some of us find that hard to fathom.

One third? Yeah, I figure that’s a good estimate of the portion of the population that can manage without the Internet. The most compelling reason to address that portion is that the third that doesn’t have it is probably not the right third (the “less affluent”, above, for example).


Nathaniel Borenstein said...

As one who lives in an extremely rural area -- 2 hours from the Saginaw airport! -- I find that lack of access is accelerating the cycle of poverty and under-education. A tool that could lift my less fortunate neighbors out of poverty is instead driving them deeper into it by its absence. I suspect this applies to every age group and demographic, with the possible exception of retired people who have enough things to do without the net.

Rural broadband would also open up more options for current city dwellers. I see myself as the wave of a more hopeful future in this regard. I was finally able to move up here full time when Sprint put up a tower nearby. Sprint's 200K is hardly true broadband, but it's enough -- just barely -- to let me live where I want to live after two decades of wishing. Why shouldn't everyone have that choice?

D. said...

I couldn't agree with Nathaniel more. My father lives in a very rural area of upstate NY, one where broadband isn't readily available. As such, limited to dial-up connections, the opportunities afforded by the worldwide web are only vaguely known, and it's easy to imagine why a lot of people might consider it a "waste of time".

I'm sure that not that long ago, there were many people who felt the same way about telephones, electric power, and indoor plumbing. I don't think it's a fair assessment from people who have no knowledge of current technology to be able to assess its usefulness. Broadband access for everyone should be considered a mandate here in the U.S.

Barry Leiba said...

I agree with both of you on the issue of access. The (not surprising) finding that less affluent people and people in rural areas are less connected tells us that something needs to be corrected.

My point is that expanding broadband access and expanding broadband adoption are different things that are only somewhat related. They’re related in that you have to have access in order to adopt, and sometimes in order to want to adopt.

But I think it's wrong to think that everyone needs to be an Internet user. That’s where the “older people” part of the finding fits in, along with other demographic groups.

Everyone should have the choice, certainly. But the government’s focus should be on facilitating access and education, and they should leave off there.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I wonder about that verb "elected". If these are genuinely people who have the option available and have chosen not to take it, that's one thing. But how many of them have truly "elected" not to get online?

HRH said...

Perhaps in some countries like the United States, some group of people, like those mentioned in the blog, can choose not to bother with the Internet, and totally get away with it, but this is not entirely true in other domiciles. I guess depending on where one lives, it won’t be so easy to dismiss using the Internet all together; at some point, and it may not to be too frequent, one is forced to get on the Information Superhighway. For instance, I was at a local government office the other day to re-new my health insurance policy, which is sponsored by the national health care system (not the one proposed by President Obama, this one is in the middle east, where I reside). As I was waiting in line, suddenly the announcement on the PA system says-- “The latest government policy, mandates that all health insurance renewals, must be initiated through our web-site at www…., this office no longer handles health insurance renewals”. This lady sitting next to me, who later turned out to be 87 years old, asks me, “Where do I need to go?” I replied, the “Internet”, still rather astonished by the new word, she then asked, is it nearby? Can I walk there or should I catch the bus? I then explained the new concept to her; and she agreed, one of her grand children is going to assist her with the renewal. Another example-- in June of this year, for the first time, the government is going to offer cash assistance to those who live below the poverty line, which by their own estimates, there will be around 14 millions out of the 75 millions populations. In order to apply for the assistance, the candidates (who are mainly among elderly, uneducated, rural residence, less affluent and disabled) must fill-in the required form on the Internet at one of the government web-sites. They also need to refer to that web-site later on, to check their eligibility status, the amount of their monthly assistance and other information. I agree, that it would be appropriate and more considerate, to give people, the traditional paper option in addition to the Internet, to apply for something, but who said, the government is fair, especially these totalitarian, Neanderthals,…..who occasionally, make the Internet, the absolute necessity for people to get by.