Sunday, July 8, 2007

Want High-speed Internet !

By Eric Benderoff
Tribune staff reporter
Published July 6, 2007

Adoption of high-speed Internet at home has almost tripled over the last two years among African-American users, a "phenomenal" increase that puts black usage much closer to the rate seen by whites and English-speaking Hispanics, according to a new study.

The "Home Broadband Adoption 2007" study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that high-speed Internet usage among African-American adults soared from 14 percent in 2005 to 40 percent this year. By comparison, home broadband usage among whites rose from 31 percent in 2005 to 48 percent this year.

The survey's authors note that high-speed Internet penetration among African-Americans is roughly equivalent to that seen for whites in 2006.

English-speaking Hispanics track very closely to white Americans in terms of home broadband usage, said Aaron Smith, one of the authors of the study, which was released this week.

The increase at home by African-Americans corresponds with "very aggressive marketing campaigns from cable and phone companies," Smith said. "Prices have dropped to $14.99 for DSL service."

The increased home usage does not surprise L.A. Seals, the district program coordinator for Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), but he does call it "good news."

"New technologies provide new opportunities," Seals said, "and most of the job information is available online today."

But he noted Internet usage among African-Americans is also increasing thanks to mobile devices.

"It's still access, but many people are going online with their Sidekicks, not a computer," Seals said, pointing out T-Mobile's popular gadget used for sending e-mail and surfing the Web.

Nonetheless, aggressive marketing and promotion from companies like AT&T Inc., which provides high-speed Internet access for $15 a month, has clearly helped.

According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, African-American households had the lowest median income in 2005 ($30,858) among racial groups. The median income for non-Hispanic white households was $50,784.

The higher adoption among African-Americans "is not surprising to us," said Laura Hernandez, the phone company's executive director of multicultural marketing. "A key barrier to entry was cost. If we could make [digital subscriber line Internet service] more affordable, we expected more customers would sign up."

AT&T offers a tiered pricing structure for high-speed Internet access, with "basic" service starting at $15 a month and "elite" access, which offers significantly faster speeds, priced at $35 a month.

They are using the "Internet to get ahead," Hernandez said of African-Americans. "They are e-mailing and surfing and probably using social networks like everyone else, but it's with a real intent."

She called that intent "how I can better myself," a tone reflected in AT&T's marketing.

That is a very real concern, said one African-American community leader.

"There is a lot of interest in our community to get more people online," said Rev. Robin Hood, a pastor at Redeemed Outreach Ministries in Chicago's West Englewood neighborhood. "It's a necessity for doing just about anything.

"Even if you want to pay bills, you need to get online," he said. "I went to Walgreens a few months ago for some medicine and I gave them my e-mail address." Now he gets coupons and special promotions, a benefit he wouldn't otherwise receive if he wasn't online, Hood said.

"There's such a high demand to keep up," Hood said of African-Americans, so "no, the jump in usage doesn't surprise me at all. More still needs to be done."

Seals echoed that thought.

"People always talk about the digital divide, but as customers, we [African-Americans] are closing that," he said. "But we are not doing enough elsewhere, such as developing software for the Internet. There's a lot of room for growth."

Smith, of Pew, said affordable pricing for high-speed Web access is critical, but so is exposure to the Internet.

"As people get exposure to the technology, they tend to want it," he said.

The survey noted that rural Americans lag the rest of the nation when it comes to home broadband usage, with only 31 percent adoption this year.

"Rural residents are less likely to use broadband at work," Smith said. "That exposure at work is a key driver to get people to use broadband at home."

According to Pew data, 71 percent of adults use the Internet at least occasionally from some location. Of those adults, 94 percent surf the Web from home. The vast majority of those home users, 70 percent, use a high-speed connection while 23 percent still use a slower dial-up connection.

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