Voices of Digital Communities

Who Are We Trying to Digitally Include?

Blessings, however are unevenly distributed. Stark disparity is the way of things, whether between nations, regions or the citizens of our own community.

by / December 6, 2010

The just-ended Thanksgiving holiday is one of America's best.  It is a day devoted to contemplating the powers far beyond our control that have shaped our lives for the better.   The common name for them is blessings, be they of family, friends, health, knowledge or possessions, and we dedicate this holiday to the spirit of gratitude for all we have been given.    

Blessings, however are unevenly distributed.  Stark disparity is the way of things, whether between nations, regions or the citizens of our own community.  As your community uses information and communications technology to build economic prosperity – becoming more "intelligent," in our terms – you need to pay attention to who is getting left out of the broadband economy.  Otherwise you risk making existing social ills worse, at a cost to the lives of the excluded and to the community as a whole.

The first step in meeting any challenge is to understand it.  We understand who the excluded are and why they are on the outside.  Don’t we?  Maybe we do – but often the realities are more complex than they appear.

In my last two posts, I have written about age and income as factors, and have cast my vote for focusing our efforts on the low-income population, which in general also means those with poor educational achievement.  A recent report from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the US Department of Commerce makes clear just how big an impact income and education have on digital adoption in this country.  This year, 95% of American households with an income of at least US$100,000 have broadband in their homes, compared with 38% of those earning less than $25,000.  The good news is that having just a bit more money makes a big difference: 63% of households with $25,000-40,000 in income are on broadband. 

On the educational front, households with a university degree average an 86% connection rate to broadband versus 30% for households lacking a secondary school diploma.  Again, having a bit more education helps: 53% of households headed by a secondary school graduate are on broadband and it jumps to 71% for those with at least some college.  

The NTIA numbers also focus on race and ethnicity as factors.  White households overall have a 71% broadband connection rate, compared with 52% of black and 49% of Hispanic households.  Part of the difference relates to income and education: black and Hispanic households had only 65% of the median income of white households in 2007.  The percentage of black adults with college diplomas in that year was only 64% that of white adults, and the Hispanic rate was only 44% that of whites.    Lower income and educational achievement skew the digital adoption numbers downward, other things being equal.

Urban areas, with their more attractive rates of return for broadband providers, also have higher connection rates overall: 51% versus 66% for all households in 2010.  The very bottom rung on the broadband adoption ladder is occupied by African Americans lacking a secondary school degree who live in a rural area.  Only 11% of such households are connected to broadband.  

So far, the picture is just about what any knowledgeable American might expect, given our history, educational system and changing demographics.  Except that the picture is missing some crucial pieces, according to a recent article by Aaron Smith of the Pew Internet & American Life project.  It turns out that English-speaking Hispanics are almost identical to whites in their use of the Internet and home broadband.  It is foreign-born and Spanish-dominant Latinos who trail the rest and pull down the overall numbers.  For the Hispanic population, income and education have less of an impact than language. 

African Americans and all Latinos are significantly less likely to own a desktop computer than whites –  another negative for broadband adoption.  But is it?  It turns out that all three groups have equal levels of laptop ownership.   Ownership of laptops – which are newer technology than desktops – among African Americans jumped from 34% in 2009 to 51% in September 2010.  And when it comes to the wireless Web, minority American adults make much broader use of their mobile phones' capabilities than do white Americans. 

Compared with white mobile phone owners, blacks and Latinos are significantly more likely to use mobile devices to send text messages and email, use social networking sites, surf the Web, record and watch videos and play games.  Among all Internet users, 70% of blacks and English-speaking Latinos use social networking sites compared with 60% of whites.  Nearly half of black Internet users go to a social networking site on a typical day, compared with just one-third of white Internet users.  

Digital inclusion is all about culture, and in matters of culture, things are seldom simple.  In deciding how to attack digital exclusion, we need facts, not theories, to help pierce the fog.  That is why it is important to involve the people we are trying to help in creating and delivering solutions – because they know the culture, with its challenges and opportunities, better than anyone else.  

Powers far beyond our control do most of the shaping of our lives.  The single biggest determiner of household income is the household income our parents had, and the best predictor of educational achievement is that of our parents.  When communities find ways to help some of their citizens beat those expectations, it is truly something to be thankful for. 

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.