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New NTIA Data Show Enduring Barriers to Closing the Digital Divide, Achieving Digital Equity

May 11, 2022 by Rafi Goldberg, Senior Policy Advisor, Digital Equity, Office of Policy Analysis and Development

Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted what many already knew: high-speed internet access is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. As workplaces and schools shifted to online environments, families that lacked access to affordable, reliable, high-speed connections, appropriate devices, and digital skills fell further behind.

Newly released data from the 2021 NTIA Internet Use Survey show that historically less-connected communities used the Internet and connected devices in greater numbers than they did two years ago. Despite that progress, the substantial disparities that NTIA has tracked for decades continued to be evident, highlighting the urgent need to work toward digital equity in the United States.

The 2021 NTIA Internet Use Survey represents the first comprehensive federal data on how Internet use in America has evolved since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The results make clear that our nation faces substantial challenges to achieving full digital equity. Over the coming months, NTIA will continue to analyze the data to help inform the important policy choices that will be made as part of the new high-speed internet programs in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The Digital Equity Act, in particular, references the Internet Use Survey as a key data point to help determine award amounts for the $1.5 billion State Digital Equity Planning and Capacity Grant Programs.

Much of the value of the NTIA Internet Use Survey comes from how researchers, advocates, and other members of the public use it in their own work. We have updated the NTIA Data Explorer tool to include metrics from the most recent survey, while also adding some user interface improvements. And in the coming weeks, we will post the complete public use dataset and sample code for use with statistical programs.

First Look at New Data

Our initial findings only scratch the surface of what policymakers, advocates, researchers, and others can learn from the latest NTIA Internet Use Survey. The survey includes more than 50 questions about use of the Internet, devices, online activities, and barriers to fully benefiting from the promise of our connected society.

For nearly three decades, NTIA has partnered with the U.S. Census Bureau to administer the Survey as a supplement to the Current Population Survey (CPS). For the November 2021 CPS, which included the NTIA Internet Use Survey, the Census Bureau gathered information on nearly 100,000 people living in over 43,000 households across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The large sample size and sophisticated methodology of the CPS enable NTIA to reliably break out results by a range of demographics and by state.

Overall, 80 percent of Americans ages 3 and older used the Internet in some fashion in 2021, which represents a modest increase from 79 percent in 2019. However, this top-line number masks some progress among groups that too often are left on the wrong side of the digital divide.

For example, even as Internet use among White non-Hispanics was unchanged at 82 percent from 2019 to 2021, it increased from 75 percent to 77 percent during this period among both African Americans and Hispanics (see Figure 1). We also observed outsized increases in connectivity along other demographic lines, including seniors, persons with disabilities, and those in low-income households. These groups made significant gains in the breadth of tools at their disposal, including in their computing devices and types of Internet access services. Yet, in many cases, they remain at a substantial disadvantage.

Figure 1: Internet Use by Race or Ethnicity, Percent of Age 3+ Persons, 1998–2021

More Americans Have High-Speed Internet at Home

In recent years, many of the more well-connected have chosen to subscribe to both mobile data plans and fixed home Internet services. But people in low-income households and members of certain demographic groups have been far less likely to have both fixed and mobile Internet services at their disposal. In particular, fewer people in low-income households have any Internet service at all, and if they do, they are also more likely to rely exclusively on mobile data plans.

That said, the gap has narrowed during the recent years, and particularly against the backdrop of the pandemic. Overall, 69 percent of Americans lived in a household with both fixed and mobile Internet services, compared with 67 percent in 2019 and 65 percent in 2017. As illustrated in Figure 2, these gains came almost exclusively from those in households with incomes below $50,000 per year, and seemed to accelerate between 2019 and 2021.

Figure 2: Internet Use by Race or Ethnicity, Percent of Age 3+ Persons, 1998–2021

Similarly, the shares of Americans living in mobile-only households and in households with no Internet service subscriptions at all dropped during this period. In 2017, 34 percent of people in households with family incomes under $25,000 per year had no Internet service subscriptions at all, and 15 percent only had mobile data plans, while by 2021 those numbers had changed to 26 percent and 13 percent, respectively. As the Internet has become even more essential to daily life, more people appear to have prioritized having both fixed and mobile connectivity. Yet the disparities here remain substantial; in 2021, only 9 percent of people in households with incomes of $100,000 or more lacked any type of Internet service, and only 4 percent were mobile-only.

More Types of Devices

In addition to turning to multiple modes of Internet connectivity, people also continued to diversify the range of different computing devices they use for various tasks. We observed the largest changes in the use of smart TVs and TV-connected devices, which increased from 41 percent of Americans in 2019 to 48 percent in 2021, and in adoption of smart watches and other wearables, from 12 percent to 16 percent. Use of laptops and smartphones each increased by 2 percentage points from 2019 to 2021, while tablet and desktop computer use stagnated at 30 percent and 28 percent, respectively (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Use of Selected Computing Devices, Percent of Age 3+ Persons, 2011–2021

As in the cases of overall Internet use and adoption of different types of Internet access services, some relatively small changes conceal more substantial demographic shifts. For example, the small increase in laptop use was driven in part by increased use among children, perhaps as a result of increased remote learning. Thirty-two percent of children between the ages of 3 and 14 used a laptop in 2021, compared with just 27 percent in 2019, and laptop use among those ages 15 to 24 grew from 56 to 60 percent during this period.

Each type of device has its strengths and weaknesses, but a computer with a relatively large screen and appropriate input methods, such as a desktop, laptop, or tablet computer, is typically considered the superior tool for important tasks like doing homework and working remotely.

Our data, however, show continued disparities in device use. Only 54 percent of Americans with disabilities used a PC or tablet in 2021, compared with 70 percent of those not reporting a disability. Moreover, while 71 percent of White non-Hispanics used a PC or tablet, only 57 percent of African Americans and 54 percent of Hispanics did so. These figures actually represent a narrowing of the gaps from 2019, when 55 percent of African Americans and 50 percent of Hispanics used a PC or tablet, and only 49 percent of persons with disabilities did so.

NTIA will continue to analyze these data in a forthcoming series of blog posts. To keep up with the latest developments and analysis from our Internet Use Survey, join our NTIA Data Central listserv.

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