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NTIA Data Reveal Shifts in Technology Use, Persistent Digital Divide

June 10, 2020 by Evelyn Remaley, Associate Administrator, Office of Policy Analysis and Development

Today, NTIA is releasing results of its latest NTIA Internet Use Survey, which show that nearly 4 out of 5 Americans were using the Internet by November 2019, and are increasingly using a larger and more varied range of devices. Even as seniors and other demographic groups reported encouraging increases in Internet use, the data show that a persistent digital divide still exists based on income levels, age groups, and race, among other factors.

This is the fifteenth edition of the survey—the product of a partnership between NTIA and the U.S. Census Bureau that spans a quarter century—and it includes over 50 detailed questions about computer and Internet use administered to approximately 50,000 households across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The NTIA Internet Use Survey is a vital data source for policymakers, researchers, and advocates seeking to understand critical questions related to Internet use and help bridge the digital divide.

Over the coming months, NTIA policy analysts will be digging into the new data to understand computer and Internet use in the United States. Because the survey was conducted this past November, it effectively serves as a snapshot of the country shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic began. NTIA is working to gain insights into how the pandemic has impacted the digital divide since November and what potential policy responses might address it.

We have also updated our Data Explorer visualization tool to include the latest estimates for dozens of tracked metrics, enabling users to easily see the latest results either on a state-by-state map or charted over time. And for those researchers who want to use NTIA Internet Use Survey data in their own studies, this summer we will continue our long-standing practice of publicly releasing a complete dataset, along with extensive technical documentation and sample code.

Internet Use in 2019

Overall, the proportion of Americans ages 3 and older using the Internet from any location increased modestly from 78 percent in 2017 to 79 percent in 2019. The pace of growth in Internet use has been relatively stable over the past decade, increasing by 11 percentage points since 2009. However, some demographic groups remained less likely to go online than their peers; for example, African Americans and Hispanics were 7 percentage points less likely to use the Internet, and Asian Americans were 4 percentage points less likely to do so, compared with White non-Hispanics (see Figure 1).

Graphic: Internet use by race or ethnicity

The gaps between Whites and other groups in 2019 were statistically significant and require further study. Among Asian Americans in particular, there was also a small decline in estimated Internet use overall, though the difference from 2017 is within the margin of error. The trend across over two decades of NTIA Internet Use Surveys is encouraging, as disparities in Internet use based on race and ethnicity have narrowed significantly.

Breaking out Internet use along other demographic lines revealed largely similar trends. Internet use among Americans with family incomes below $25,000 per year increased from 62 percent in 2017 to 65 percent in 2019, though this was still far short of the 87 percent of those with annual family incomes of $100,000 or more. Seniors ages 65 and older experienced one of the largest gains in Internet use of any demographic group, increasing their use by 5 percentage points to 68 percent.

Evolution of Computing Devices

The popularity of different device types has changed dramatically since NTIA began tracking them separately in 2011. Back then, desktop PCs were the most commonly used type of computing device, utilized by 45 percent of Americans, while only 27 percent used a smartphone. By 2019, smartphones had soared in popularity and were used by 68 percent of Americans, while desktop use fell dramatically to 28 percent (see Figure 2).

Graphic: Use of Selected Computing Devices

The use of smart TVs and TV-connected devices also increased rapidly over this period, and continued to grow quickly in the latest survey to 41 percent of Americans, from 34 percent in 2017 and just 14 percent back in 2011. Americans are also using more devices: 64% reported using at least two different types of devices in 2019, and 45% used at least three different types of devices. Both figures are somewhat higher than those we reported two years ago, and continue a long-term trend toward use of multiple devices.

Similar to Internet adoption rates, however, multiple device use was not consistent across demographic groups. For example, people with annual family incomes under $25,000 reported using an average of 1.4 different types of devices in 2019, compared with an average of 2.8 device types among those with family incomes of $100,000 or more.

NTIA will continue publishing findings as we explore the latest NTIA Internet Use Survey data in depth. There is a significant need for high-quality data and expert analysis of the challenges related to the digital divide. We will therefore strive to identify evidence-based policy solutions that ensure all Americans can enjoy the numerous economic, social, and educational opportunities these technologies enable.

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