One in five Americans, that's who.
About one-third of the population does not have a high-speed Internet, or broadband, connection at home, according to a new Federal Communications Commission report. (Click here for the PDF.) That's 93 million "non-adopters." Six percent of the 5,005 people the FCC surveyed for its study said they have a slower dial-up connection. Another 6 percent access the Web outside of their home. But 22 percent said they simply do not use the Internet.
Those who never go online tend to be older, poorer and less educated than broadband users. Even though they're more likely to live in rural areas, only a few of the holdouts said Internet service wasn't available in their community.
The reasons "nonusers" gave most often included the cost of a computer and service fees. But about half also said they were "not comfortable using a computer" and "worried about all the bad things that can happen if I use the Internet." Another commonly voiced complaint should be a wake-up call for Web content producers everywhere. One-third said there's "nothing on the Internet I want to see or use" and the Internet is "just a waste of time."
This Internet disconnect with a large chunk of the population has social and economic consequences.
"In the 21st century, a digital divide is an opportunity divide," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement Tuesday. "To bolster American competitiveness abroad and create the jobs of the future here at home, we need to make sure that all Americans have the skills and means to fully participate in the digital economy."
On his FCC blog recently, Genachowski warned, "While the United States invented the Internet, when it comes to broadband, we are lagging behind where we should be."
The FCC will send its National Broadband Plan to Congress March 17. Genachowski has promised a proposal that will expand broadband adoption to 90 percent of American homes and create "the world's largest market" of high-speed Web users.
"Now, we're at a point where, if you want broadband adoption to go up by any significant measure, you really have to start to eat into the segment of non-Internet-users," John Horrigan, who directed the FCC study, told The New York Times.
That will be easier said than done and will require a combination of solutions. Cost cutting alone won't be enough, industry observers cautioned.
"Internet service providers will be loath to reduce pricing to accommodate those who want broadband access but can't afford it," Don Reisinger predicted in the Los Angeles Times. One relevant nugget from the FCC's poll: 29 percent of those who cited monthly cost as a barrier to adopting broadband said they were not willing to pay anything for access. (Then there are those who do use high-speed Internet at home but don't pay for it. Hat tip to Urlesque for finding this sad/funny video of the Tech Guy, Leo Laporte, slowly bringing a caller to the realization that she's been stealing Wi-Fi from a neighbor.)
CNET's Marguerite Reardon agreed that cutting prices alone probably won't do much to increase broadband adoption. "But lowering prices on service, coupled with adding programs that teach people the digital skills they need to access the Net while also educating them on how the Internet can enhance their lives, could have a substantial effect," she said.
Trying to win over people who think the Internet is a waste of time "might be a lost cause," warned the L.A. Times' Reisinger. But there's still a case to be made for the Web's brain-boosting potential, according to the latest Pew Research Center survey of opinions about the Internet's future. As True/Slant's David Disalvo summarized the study, seven out of 10 experts agreed that "Google won't make us stupid."
The challenge for those who create what's on the Internet is to keep working on "innovative, immersive experiences and applications" that will change the minds of "those who fear the Web or don't understand its value," said GigaOM's Colin Gibbs.
"E-mail is largely credited with driving the demand for dial-up Internet services more than a decade ago, and the rise of Apple's iTunes and other entertainment offerings fueled the move to high-speed connections. Online social networks may be able to help close the broadband gap by making it even easier for users to upload photos, for instance, and share content with friends," Gibbs wrote. "Because while the FCC can certainly help bring broadband to those who don't yet have it, there isn't much the agency can do to convince people to use it."