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Digital Divide Persists Despite Broadband Expansion

Commerce Department study expected to influence debate around the National Broadband Plan, which aims to increase high-speed wireless for rural, minority, and low-income Americans.

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A U.S. Commerce Department branch studying the adoption of broadband has found the obvious -- broadband is growing dramatically -- and some groups, including low income and minority citizens, are missing the broadband train.

States in the Northeast and West generally showed higher Internet access rates than states in the South and the Midwest, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Economics and Statistics Administration.

The broad survey of about 54,000 U.S. households will help the Federal Communications Commission and Congress as they deliberate the status of the National Broadband Plan that is expected to be taken up by Congress in 2011. The most glaring gaps were found among low-income families, African-Americans, Hispanics, and disabled Americans.

"The digital divide is an opportunity divide -- it you can't get online, you can't compete in the digital economy," said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski in a statement. "The NTIA's new report provides an in-depth look at the persistent gaps between the digital haves and the digital have-nots. Closing these gaps is one of the top priorities of the FCC's National Broadband Plan."

Examining the broad sweep from 2001 to 2009, the NTIA found broadband grew from a 9.2% adoption rate in 2001 to 63.5% in 2009. Virtually all categories and demographics examined participated in the growth.

Income disparity was clearly involved in the findings, as 94% of families with income over $100,000 had broadband in 2009, while just 36% of households with less than $25,000 annual income had broadband.

Advocates for increased broadband access in rural areas found that just 51% of rural households had broadband in 2009, compared with 66% of urban households. It's more expensive and difficult to deliver broadband to rural areas compared to urban locations.

However, largely rural Utah reported the highest percentage of households using broadband Internet at home; their score was 73%, which was statistically matched by three other states: Arkansas, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. The state with the nation's largest population -- California -- dropped from fourth place in 2001 to 14th place in 2009.

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