November 8, 2011; Source: OregonianThough social media and Internet communications have become ubiquitous tools for much of the nonprofit sector, it’s important to remember that significant population groups in the United States still don’t have access to high speed (broadband) Internet at home. According to a new report from the U.S. Department of Commercebased on 2010 Census data, the digital divide still persists along geographic, economic, and ethnic lines.

Since 2000, overall home computer ownership rates have increased by more than 50 percent, and home-based broadband access has exploded increased by over 1500 percent as the technology has become more widely available. As of 2010, over three quarters (77 percent) of American households have a computer at home, and 68 percent of households have a broadband connection to the Internet from their homes. Still, this means that roughly one-third of American households can’t access the high speed Internet that enables videos, webinars, file sharing, content-heavy websites, and more.

Households with school-age children have higher rates of computer ownership and broadband usage than other households. However, across the board, home-based computer ownership and high speed Internet access are highly correlated with income and education levels, are less the norm for rural residents than urban, and are less likely for black, Hispanic, and native Americans than for white and Asian Americans. Mobile apps through hand-held devices such as smart phones aren’t filling the gap: just 19 percent of households report using such devices, and nearly 90 percent of those who do also have home computers.

The Commerce Department’s research further estimates how much of the digital divide is attributable to one variable (e.g. rural vs. urban) by holding other variables constant in a multiple regression analysis. According to the report, “results suggest that income and education are strongly associated with broadband Internet access at home, but are not the sole determinants. Other factors, such as race, ethnicity and urban-rural location are also independently associated with technology usage patterns.” In fact, the patterns are amplified as more than one factor comes into play: for example, of rural households with a black head of household who lacks a high school diploma, only 27 percent have a home computer, and only 16 percent have broadband Internet access. The disparities are also greater in some states than others: in California, urban and rural households have virtually the same home-based broadband connection rates, whereas in Mississippi urban households were 51 percent more likely to have broadband connections in their home than rural households.

In part, the lack of home-based Internet access reflects lack of demand. According to the report, 52 percent of the households lacking a home computer reported the main reason as being “don’t need it: not interested.” For households with a computer, but without the Internet, the main reason, cited by 37 percent of households, is that it is “too expensive.” Lack of access to broadband was not among the top reasons for not having it at home, though aggregated national data does not reflect the impact of acute localized service gaps. The report includes additional questions yet to be answered related to policy implications.

This research has already many implications for the nonprofit sector. It challenges assumptions that the Internet can ever be our primary portal to reach people most in need of basic services. It poses a challenge to the field about how to stay connected with not only the needs but also the voices of our clients and constituents, as the “new normal” of communication shifts online. It suggests that the agenda for nonprofits interested in improving economic opportunities for disenfranchised populations must include paying attention to the digital divide and understanding what barriers most need addressing in a given place and time—whether they be educational, financial, or policy-related.—Kathi Jaworski