Internet Connectivity Gap Narrows, But Disparities Still Exist Across States

How well-connected Americans are varies greatly across regions, racial groups and income levels. View data for each state.
by | June 25, 2013 AT 3:00 AM
Someone works on their laptop as their iPhone lays beside it at a coffee shop in Columbia, Mo.
Twenty-seven percent of Americans access the Internet from both their homes and another location from multiple devices, according to recent census data. AP/L.G. Patterson

Disparities in Americans’ ability to connect to the Internet have persisted for years -- across regions, racial groups and income levels. But as more gain access, gaps in connectivity have gradually begun to shrink.

A Census Bureau report published earlier this month outlines some of the more prominent disparities, illustrating the extent to which select groups of Americans surf the Web.

While some studies examine only whether individuals have any Internet access, the census survey takes it a step further by employing a full connectivity continuum scale. Although the vast majority of Americans connect to the Web in some way, some do so from more locations and devices than others. An estimated 27 percent of Americans fell in the most connected bracket on the scale, accessing the Internet from both their homes and another location from multiple devices.

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Considering the full extent to which one connects to the Internet is important since those enjoying better connectivity typically perform a far greater range of activities online, said John Horrigan, director of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies’ Media and Technology Institute. Some, for instance, may only perceive the Internet as a tool limited to correspondence and looking up information.

Areas with the highest proportion of residents lacking Internet connections are mostly found throughout the South and Appalachia. The following table shows degrees of Internet connectivity, by state, as measured by 2011 Current Population Survey data:

One of the clearest divides in connectivity exists across race and ethnicity. In 2011, 76.2 percent of non-Hispanic whites reported household Internet use, compared to only 58.3 percent of Hispanics and 56.9 percent of blacks.

“So much of our culture assumes Internet access these days, and for people to not have access really puts them out of the mainstream of what’s happening in society,” Horrigan said.

But the gap, while still large, slowly closed in recent years.

In 2000, non-Hispanic white households were approximately twice as likely as blacks to use the Internet. By 2011, the gap had narrowed to whites being 1.3 times more likely to connect, according to the census survey.

Part of this stems from more Americans, across all demographic groups, connecting to the Web. Many states launched major broadband initiatives to plug in their residents, particularly those living in outlying areas. These projects, coupled with federal stimulus grants, furthered efforts to deliver high-speed Internet.

Horrigan also attributes much of the shift in connectivity among minority groups to smartphones.

Unlike home Internet access, little disparity exists for smartphones. The Census Bureau estimates 48.6 percent of non-Hispanic whites, 47.3 percent of blacks and 45.4 percent of Hispanics were smartphone users in 2011. It’s important to note, however, smaller screens and monthly data caps often limit their functionality.

Multiple barriers continue to prevent more Americans from plugging into the Internet from home. Low-income families often can’t justify the costs, which add up to hefty sums over the year. Not surprisingly, households reporting higher educational attainment and annual incomes tend to be the most connected.

Horrigan also notes that many Americans still lack basic digital skills or simply don’t understand the Internet’s relevance to their daily lives.

“It takes some help from the communities to open up the eyes of non-adopters,” he said.