Rural Americans' Internet Use Has Grown, But They Continue to Lag Behind Others

  • February 17, 2004

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There has been steady penetration of the Internet into rural areas in recent years and more than half of rural adults--52%--now go online. However, a corresponding rise in the percentage of urban and suburban residents going online has left a persistent gap between rural areas and the rest of the country. Some 67% of urban residents and 66% of suburbanites are online.

A new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project finds that the gap is probably tied to the fact that rural residents as a group earn less and are older than their urban and suburban counterparts. 

Rural areas' are also distinct in how rural users get online. Some 19% of online rural residents have broadband connections at home, compared to 36% of urban residents and 32% of suburbanites. The availability of broadband connections may be partially responsible for this difference. Nearly a quarter of rural Internet users say they can't get a high-speed connection in their area, whereas 5% of urban users say this, and 10% of suburban users say a high-speed connection is unavailable. 

In addition, rural Internet users are distinctive in some ways for what they do and don't do online. They are more likely than others accessed religious or spiritual content. In addition, they are more likely to have used instant messaging. On the other hand, they are less likely than others to have engaged in transaction activities such as online banking and online purchases. 

“Rural Internet users aren't entirely a breed apart from other online Americans,” said Peter Bell, Research Associate at the Pew Internet Project and principal author of the new report. “When it comes to using email, employing search engines, visiting government Web sites, and pursuing hobbies, they are just as likely as everyone else to perform some of the most popular activities online. Many of their differences can be explained by the fact that the Internet hasn't diffused into everyday life in rural areas at quite the same clip as it has in others locales.” 

The report, titled “Rural Areas and the Internet,” is based on primarily on survey data collected between March and August 2003. The Pew Internet & American Life Project is a non-profit, non-partisan research organization, fully funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts to explore the social impact of the Internet. 

Some other data highlights from the report: 

  • Many rural residents are enthusiastic users of the Internet at an early stage in their adoption of the technology: 45% of rural newcomers go online daily.
  • Rural users with three years or more online are more likely than others to seek health information online. Almost three quarters of experienced rural users have done so, while 68% of similarly experienced suburban users and 64% of similarly experienced urban users have sought health information online.
  • Data collected in October 2002 shows that 29% of rural Internet users say the Internet Service Provider they use is the only one available to them. In contrast, 7% of urban users reported a single ISP, and about 9% of suburban users were serviced by a lone ISP.
  • There is a large gap between rural African-Americans and rural whites. While 54% of rural whites go online, 31% of rural African-Americans do so. This disparity can probably be traced to income and education. Over 70% of rural African-Americans live in households with incomes under $30,000 a year, compared to 44% of rural whites.
  • Rural users' online connections to groups are more likely to stretch beyond their physical community. While 15% of suburban users and 19% of urban users say that most members of their online group live “in my local community,” only 8% of rural users' say that most of their group's members live in the same local community. Rural users' online community connections are more likely than those of urban and suburban users to be directed beyond their physical location. Half of rural users say that most of the other members of their online group live “all over the country.” Some 77% of rural users say so, while 66% of suburban users and 64% of urban users say so.

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