Voices of Digital Communities

Go Online -- Or Else!

Communities need to work on digital inclusion because, otherwise, their success in building a digital economy and culture will worsen the exclusion of those already at the margins.

by / November 1, 2010

I have spent the last two weeks in two very different places: the rural north of the state of Minnesota, and in Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city and a Smart21 Community of the Year.  Both were the scenes of conferences on broadband-based economic and social development.  Among the many issues they both explored was digital inclusion: the conscious effort to bring the unconnected into the digital economy and culture.

At the first conference, Jack Geller of the University of Minnesota presented findings from a research project on broadband adoption in the rural parts of that state.  In 2001, 40% of the state’s rural households were connected to the Internet but only 6% at broadband speeds.   By 2010, the share of online rural homes had risen to 71% and 68% had broadband service.  

That’s remarkable progress.  But Dr. Geller’s data also suggests that an upper limit to adoption is not far off.  Since 2007, computer ownership – that essential gateway to home Internet access – has leveled off at just under 80% of all households.  

What is the cause?  Age is one.  Rural populations skew older than urban ones, and both computer ownership and Internet access fall with increasing age.  In a survey of 11 rural communities identified as online leaders, Dr. Geller’s team found that computer ownership fell from 90% for those 22 to 35 years of age down to 74% in the 56-64 range.  For those 65 and older, it plummeted to 39%.  Internet connectivity followed the same pattern.  Eighty-six percent of the youngest group was online compared with 71% of those 56-64 – but only 36% of those 65 and older were connected.  Overall, almost 70% of Internet non-adopters are 65 years of age or older.

So, why don’t the old folks at home go online?  About 13% have access to the Internet somewhere else.  But nearly 40% said they don’t need a computer, while another 14% thought computers were too expensive.  (Given how cheap computers are today, I think that’s just another way of saying they don’t need one.)  In the rural areas surveyed, 25% were even more specific about their reasons.  Rather than checking one of the boxes on the survey, they wrote in their own answer.  They were, they said, “too old.”

That statistic is the most interesting of the bunch, because it goes to the heart of the question.  Informed activists like Dr. Geller frame digital exclusion – whether by age, income, location or disability – as a problem.  At ICF, we agree.  Communities need to work on digital inclusion because, otherwise, their success in building a digital economy and culture will worsen the exclusion of those already at the margins.  There is also much that a broadband-linked PC can do for an older person: connect to healthcare resources, link with family and friends by email and social networks, enrich the pursuit of hobbies, even videoconference with the grandkids.  When it comes to healthcare in particular, online services have big potential to reduce the costs of delivery during the most expensive years of life.  

In considering the digital inclusion of older citizens, however, I think a certainly humility is in order.  I recall a conversation with my father when he was in his late seventies.  He described poking around the new personal computers at the library and deciding that they weren’t for him.  He hoped that was all right with me.  

All right with me?  My father was a very bright man, gifted in math and a prodigious player of bridge, who had worked in the data-driven world of insurance his whole life after mastering the skills of a naval officer in the Second World War.  If he had decided that learning about computers was not going to grace his later years, it was absolutely fine with me.

Digital inclusion, like most other virtues, can be divided into those things that are essential, and those things that it is good to have.  Clean water is essential; vitamin water in plastic bottles is (maybe) good to have.  I hope my family and friends who are 65 and older will forgive me for saying that efforts to foster digital inclusion of older people are good to have.  I prefer to live in a place that makes this effort.  But essential?  From the standpoint of society, the digital exclusion of the elderly is a problem that time will solve.  The next generation of the elderly – the Baby Boom generation – is bringing digital skills with them into retirement, and each generation that succeeds them will be ever more literate online.  Likewise geographic exclusion will gradually ease – look at how far the rural communities of Minnesota have come in less than a decade.  But there is another kind of digital exclusion that time will not heal, and that is the one where I believe we should focus most of our effort and imagination.  More on that in my next post.

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.