The digital divide of choice

The latest data on broadband and Internet use from the Pew Internet & American Life Project adds some interesting thought-food to ongoing discussions about the “digital divide.”

First, the report puts that divide in stark relief, in the context of social class. While US broadband adoption increased from 47% to 55% between March 2007 and April 2008, adoption among low-income Americans (those making $20,000 annually or less) actually shrank, from 28% to 25%.

But the data also highlight another divide, which you could call a divide of choice. In fact, despite all the talk about the digital divide created by deploying infrastructure in some places and not others, the divide created by choice appears to be larger.

A solid majority of dialup users — 62% — said they are not interested in broadband. Only 14% of them (24% in rural America) said they wanted broadband but it wasn’t available. And a larger group — 19% of dialup users — said nothing would interest them in broadband.

More than a quarter of Americans don’t use the Internet at all, at any speed. Of those, only 12% say it’s because they don’t have access. The largest chunk — 33% — say they are just not interested.

At the other end of the divide, nearly a third of broadband users reported subscribing to a premium service for faster speed.

Unlike the divide created by a lack of broadband infrastructure, the one created by user preference should only grow wider and wider over time. Going forward, service providers are going to work hard to ensure that anyone who is willing to pay for faster speeds will get it. And they won’t be held back, if they can help it, by those who are happy with slower service (or none at all).

Of course, class plays a role in the digital divide of choice, too, as some people can simply afford to pay for higher speeds. But I can’t imagine anyone ever proposing that we subsidize premium broadband tiers for the poor. And age makes a difference, too (those uninterested in broadband tend to be older), suggesting that, over time, the number of Americans uninterested in broadband will diminish.

As one analyst has pointed out, infrastructure is related to the divide of choice because those with fiber have much more options than those with copper. But even with a more comprehensive deployment of broadband infrastructure in the US, the range of bandwidth speeds and quality levels among the public’s Internet services is only going to grow.

As we talk about the need for a national broadband policy, with broadband penetration and bandwidth availability at its heart, how will we take into account the divide of choice? (Please post your thoughts below.)

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