Broadband adoption in Minnesota hits three-quarters but slows

DULUTH — Three-quarters of Minnesota households now have high-speed Internet connections, according to a new survey by the Center for Rural Policy and Development.

This home broadband “adoption rate” has been rising, as you might expect, but not as fast as it once was. That, the center’s research is suggesting, may mean that the digital divide between haves and have-nots is changing and getting more complicated.

The latest research was revealed at the Blandin Foundation’s ninth annual conference on broadband here. The St. Peter-based center has been conducting Internet use surveys since 2001, and the latest numbers are based on a survey of 1,652 adults this summer.

Interesting findings:

–Twin Cities residents continue to adopt broadband use at a higher rate than outstate residents, but the rate has slowed in both places. In the Twin Cities, 79.2 percent of households have adopted broadband; outstate the figure is 70.6 percent.

–The number of households that use cell phones and no land lines is now over a quarter — 27 percent. This starts to hint that how we think about who has broadband and who doesn’t is changing. Are there people who get all the access to the Internet they want via their smart phones and have no home access?

–What people are doing online is changing rapidly. Social media use was listed by more than three-quarters of those surveyed, both rural and urban. Rural users are far more likely to say they use the Internet to stay informed about community news and events than they did two years ago. That figure jumped from 36 percent in 2010 to 70 percent this year.

–Using the Internet to watch movies and TV shows became much more common, but there’s a big distinction between rural and urban. Seventy percent of urban residents watch movies online but only 46 percent of rural residents report doing so. The likely explanation involves the speed issues that have occupied broadband discussions for years.

–Another interesting rural-urban distinction shows up in the area of health care. Roughly two-thirds of people everywhere research medical information online. But in rural areas only 13 percent say they communicate with their doctor via the Internet. In the Twin Cities, almost twice as many do.

–Lack of interest and cost are still the main reasons people cite for not buying broadband services, not its availability.

Adoption rates are lowest among old people, as usual, but the survey also showed lower adoption rates among the youngest adults. “The low number of 18- to 24-year-olds in rural Minnesota with a broadband connection at home may indicate that this group is bypassing a fixed home connection altogether and are simply using the cell service on their smart phones or other mobile devices.”

Couple that with suggestions from other research that some minority groups, like Latinos, adopt mobile access faster than whites and you start to think that the people we think of as “have nots” may really be “have differents.”

“The question before was how to build infrastructure out to rural Minnesota,” center research analyst Marnie Warner told the Blandin audience of some 200 Minnesotans interested in extending the impact of broadband. Now, she said, the question of reaching the underserved has gotten more complicated.

Jack Geller, professor at the University of Minnesota Crookston and long-time researcher on this topic, echoed that thought at the end of the conference. “Maybe it’s time for us to stop focusing on adoption and start focusing on utilization.”

Getting people to maximize the speeds and access they have — whether it’s via cell phone, tablet or home computer — may be more important now than working ever harder to extend hardware and access, Geller said.

Update:

I talked to Tom Crann on All Things Considered about this issue:

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