The estimate at the end of 2018 was that 86.4% of US households were connected to the Internet.(1) We also believe, based on surveys, that some proportion of the disconnected either borrow access from friends, have access via cell phones, or use public libraries to access the Net.
That leaves a reported 7%, per a recent Pew Foundation survey, who aren’t connected at all.(2)
My suspicion is that the number of disconnected is higher, for several reasons:
- Participation bias in surveys. I suspect that the disconnected tend not to respond, and they certainly don’t respond to web-based surveys. The only way to reach them is by mail or phone. While Pew uses the best methods to reach people, there’s only so much you can do to reach people who don’t want to cooperate.
- There are 19,502 municipalities of all sizes in the US and approximately 9,000 public libraries. While some municipalities are quite small, and several could be served by a regional library, there are obviously many cases in which a library isn’t available to residents — and what exists may have quite limited resources and hours.
- There are large swaths of the US in which Internet access is limited or unavailable. Unless residents have access by satellite dish, they don’t have it. This problem mostly exists in the Eastern and Western mountain chains, covering parts of Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Washington and Oregon. Unless you list out the names, one tends to forget how much territory is involved.
- People tend to underreport things they might consider to be embarrassing. Computer illiteracy falls in that category.
Pew’s analysis suggests that most of the disconnected are older. That’s likely to be true, since age and living in rural areas go together. Rural in the US means older, limited Internet availability, limited medical service access and earlier death. People live in those areas because that’s where they grew up, it’s the life to which they are accustomed, and they lack the resources or willingness to enter into something new. Those with ambition leave and we see that in the hour-glass shape of the age profile of the population in places like Maine — heavy on residents in retirement and under 18, and light on people of prime working age. COVID may have changed that profile somewhat, but as companies struggle to get people to return to the physical office, the old profile may return.
The there’s the definition of user. Is someone who uses the computer for playing solitaire and checking email really an Internet user? My mother does little more than that. She can place orders with Amazon and get attacked by hackers. That’s about it. And forget passwords. Does that count as a user?
The computer illiterate is more than 7% of the US population. I’m not sure we really understand how big that number is. The good news is that by and large, the computer illiterate will never meet the weirdest of Web inhabitants.