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Unconnected and Unvalued


The Majority Offline are Uninterested in Home Internet Service

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has tracked home Internet participation for 20 years. While home Internet participation has grown dramatically over the past 20 years, one in five U.S. households (24 million) are still not online. For those of us who routinely access the Internet at home for multiple daily needs, it can be surprising to learn that among those that are still unconnected at home, the majority (58%) report their primary reason as “no need or interest”. Indeed, among the 13 million households expressing no need/interest, NTIA discovered 83% would not be willing to pay any price to access home Internet.

This finding raises an important question. Given such a substantial portion of offline households with no interest in purchasing home Internet at any price, is there a problem to be addressed, at least for those households? Or is the challenge of expanding digital inclusion most appropriately targeted to the smaller group of currently unconnected households who do indeed value having such a service? It is possible that readers of this blog may have equally valid, but different responses to this question. But it is a topic worthy of exploration.

  • Who are the communities most likely to report no need/interest in home Internet?
  • Why do some households perceive home Internet service of no value?
  • What are the implications for building state/regional digital equity plans?

Who are the Uninterested Households?

The NTIA Internet Use Survey tracks selected demographic characteristics of households who have Internet at home compared with those currently offline. Overall, households characterized as low-income, less educated, and from communities of color are the most likely to not presently access the Internet at home. But a closer look at these offline communities reveals older Americans, households located in rural areas, and those with no post-secondary education are overrepresented among the households responding they have no interest or need for home Internet access. Offline households from low income communities, communities of color, or have school age children present are more likely to cite affordability rather than lack of interest as their main barrier.

Some reasons why home Internet service may not be valued

There are of course many reasons why a household may have no interest in accessing the Internet at home at any price. Examples include but are not limited to:

  • Lack of experience and awareness
    The 2021 NTIA Internet Use Survey discovered that only 13 % of those households citing no interest/need, use the Internet at other locations. Approximately the same percentage reported previous home Internet use and apparently dropped that previous service.
  • Lack of perceived relevance
    A portion of those households citing no need or interest in a home Internet service may not perceive a personal relevance for their life. They may have other avenues to get information they want and do not believe going online to find information is going to be a significant benefit to their life.
  • The learning curve is not worth the perceived benefit
    For some (for example older household members who have limited online experience), the learning curve of using digital technologies can seem high and the benefits may appear limited.
  • Concerns for privacy and related issues
    Others may avoid connecting to the internet over concerns about online content or fears of credit card theft or fraud.

Implications for Digital Equity Plans

The NTIA research reveals core interventions that focus on improving high speed Internet availability and affordability are unlikely to make much progress in bringing uninterested households online. Which returns to the question posed above. There are legitimate reasons why some people do not want to connect to the digital world. What should be the position of regional and state leaders developing digital equity plans with respect to these uninterested households?

Digital equity teams must always be aware there is a risk assuming everyone needs or wants to be online. However, at the same time, because millions of offline and uninterested households are representative of historically marginalized communities, there is a compelling responsibility to understand the reasons why people make that choice and to determine if there are solutions to concerns which can be addressed.

Operationally this begins at the early stakeholder engagement stage of the planning process. Digital equity teams should be intentional, reaching out to knowledgeable insiders at non-profit organizations, human service agencies, local governments and others on-the ground who have first hand knowledge of the reasons some in their communities choose to be offline. To the extent specific concerns among the uninterested communities are identified, potential solutions may be developed in the further phases of the planning process to expand digital inclusion.

For additional reading on this topic, please check out:

Prepared for Futures Research by Bill Gillis, Spokane WA