WACO, Texas – About eight of every ten Americans have high-speed Internet at home. Specifically, over 78 percent of people in U.S. households had a high-speed Internet connection last year, according to a new US Census Bureau report. Almost 84 percent had a computer.
Some 30 years ago (1984), only eight percent of households had a computer. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that even a third of houses had them, but the numbers rose rapidly thereafter. In just three years (between 1997 and 2000), the proportion with computers jumped from 37 percent to 51 percent. Today’s 84 percent reflects households with a laptop or desktop as well as handheld (such as smart phone) or tablet devices. I realize that I’m dating myself, but it’s rather amazing how quickly the adoption of these technologies occurred, much faster than many other breakthroughs over time.
The Census Bureau data indicates that (not surprisingly) computer ownership is more common in younger households, but a full 65 percent of those aged 65 or older had a computer. More than 58 percent of those 65-plus also had an Internet subscription, and virtually all of those were high speed. This remarkable penetration speaks not only to the willingness of Americans to learn to use this new tool and means of communication, but also to the efforts of engineering, development, and design teams over the past several decades. In the early days, using a computer or the Internet required extensive knowledge of a fairly technical sort. Now, the hardware and software has advanced to the point that it’s typically quick and easy to get up and running and has taken “user-friendly” to a whole new level.
Computer ownership and Internet use are also more common in households with higher incomes. Over 98 percent of households making $150,000 or more had a computer, and 95 percent used the Internet. In households with less than $25,000 in income, 62 percent had computers and 48 percent had Internet. Higher education levels also correlate with higher computer and Internet use.
Geography is another factor. Households in metropolitan areas are significantly more likely to have computers (at 85 percent) than households in nonmetropolitan areas (77 percent). They’re also more likely to be online, with 76 percent of households in metropolitan areas having an Internet subscription compared to 65 percent of nonmetropolitan areas.
Looking at a map of computer ownership and Internet use by state reveals that southern states tend to have rates statistically lower than the national averages. While more than 88 percent of people in the United States live in a household with a computer, only 87 percent of Texans do so. In Utah, nearly 95 percent of people live in households with computers; in Mississippi, only 80 percent do so. However, within Texas there are notable differences across areas. Only three metropolitan areas in the United States had rates of household computer ownership lower than 75 percent, and two of them are in Texas (Brownsville and Laredo). In addition, there are several other metro areas in the Lone Star State which have lower penetration rates than the national average by five percent or more. At the same time, some Texas population centers (including the Metroplex and Austin) are at or higher levels than the nation as a whole.
From a corporate perspective, computers and high-speed Internet are essential, and insufficiencies in broadband infrastructure can literally eliminate an area from consideration in location and expansion decisions. Studies have also linked investments in improving broadband to economic development. The instant access to information that individuals now have has changed the way businesses and customers connect, with online interaction increasingly crucial.
For individuals, computer ownership and home Internet use clearly has an entertainment component. Movie streaming, keeping up with friends and family through email and social media, gaming, and other similar activities are among the primary uses of computers/Internet in some households. Household business is also conducted, such as paying bills, shopping online, or researching purchases. Students use the Internet to complete assignments. In some cases, computer use and high-speed Internet at home are essential for work purposes. I fall into this category, as I spend far more days working on the road or at home than I do sitting in my office, and interactions throughout the globe make me strive for 24/7/365 connectivity. In my firm, I also have employees who are offsite, relying on high-speed internet connections to do their jobs.
From a community perspective, the availability of quality and affordable high-speed Internet can provide opportunities and enhance quality of life. The fact that there are parts of Texas ranking among the lowest for computer ownership and Internet use is problematic, negatively affecting the ability of communities to provide certain services, reducing possibilities for innovations in health care delivery, impairing capabilities for technology-based solutions to other problems, and constraining economic development potential. However, with ongoing improvement in high-speed Internet infrastructure and ever falling prices for computers, smart phones, and other methods of access, we should continue to see the number of households not connected diminish – which is of benefit to individuals, their communities, and society.
Dr. M. Ray Perryman is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Perryman Group (www.perrymangroup.com). He also serves as Institute Distinguished Professor of Economic Theory and Method at the International Institute for Advanced Studies.