Rural Americans’ Internet use has grown, but they continue to lag behind others

Internet penetration has grown in rural communities, but the gap between them and suburban and urban communities has remained constant over time.

Historically, Internet penetration rates have been lower in rural areas than in other kinds of communities. When the Pew Internet & American Life Project first began surveying the Internet landscape in early 2000, 41% of rural residents were online, while 51% of urban residents and 55% of suburban residents were online. Rural Internet penetration climbed to 52% by the middle of 2003. However, urban and suburban penetration rates have risen as well. Rural Internet penetration has remained roughly 10 percentage points behind the national average in each of the last four years. 

The Project found in survey data collected between March and August 2003, suburban and urban residents remain more likely to use the Internet:

  • 67% of urban residents use the Internet.
  • 66% of suburban residents use the Internet.
  • 52% of rural residents use the Internet.

Community type: Respondents are categorized as “rural” if they reside in a non-metropolitan statistical area (MSA) county. Respondents are categorized as “suburban” if they reside in any portion of an MSA county that is not in a central city. Respondents are categorized as “urban” if they reside within a central city of an MSA.

Statistical analysis that examines the principal drivers for Internet penetration suggests that some differences in Internet adoption between rural areas and other locales are driven by patterns among low-income rural individuals.  Living in a rural area in itself has little or no influence as to whether one goes online.  However, low-income people in rural areas are less likely to be online than low-income people living in urban or suburban areas.  Middle and upper income people in both rural and other areas are equally likely to be Internet users.  At the same time, some of the gap between rural areas and the rest of the country can be explained by other demographic realities such as the fact that rural residents as a group are older, less wealthy, and have lower levels of educational attainment than those in urban and suburban areas.

Rural Americans are older and less wealthy than those in other parts of America and that may account for some of the difference in Internet penetration between community types.

Senior citizens (those 65 and older) account for a relatively larger percentage of the rural population (22%) compared to the urban (14%) and suburban populations (16%). In rural areas, seniors are unlikely to go online. Only about 17% of rural seniors go online, making up about 6% of rural Internet users. Meanwhile, rural areas hold comparatively fewer young adults, the most likely age group to go online. The age of the rural population may be one major reason why penetration rates are lower in rural communities.

It is also true that Internet use increases with household income. Some 47% of rural residents have household incomes of $30,000 or less, compared to 29% of suburban residents and 39% of urban residents. This is another possible reason why the number of Internet users among rural residents lags the situation in the suburbs and cities. 

Another factor in lower Internet penetration may be that many rural residents say they have less choice than others about the way they access the Internet.

About 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.

Rural communities hold larger portions of relative Internet newcomers than do urban and suburban communities. Yet rural Americans are often enthusiastic adopters.

About 20% of rural Internet users — more than 4 million people — have been online less than three years. In comparison, 16% of urban users have less than three years online, and 12% of suburban users have less than three years online. Unlike other newcomers to the Internet, 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, whereas 40% of urban newcomers and 46% of suburban newcomers go online daily.

Broadband adoption is growing in urban, suburban, and rural areas, but broadband users make up larger percentages of urban and suburban users than rural users.

From 2000 through 2003, the use of cable modems, DSL connections, and other broadband connections grew quickly in each community type, but rural areas hold significantly smaller proportion of broadband users. In a survey in the spring of 2003, we found that 31% of those who use the Internet from home had a broadband connection. Here is the big picture about broadband adoption in different community types from 2000 to mid-2003:

  • In urban communities, the number of home broadband users grew from 8% to 36% of the online population.
  • In suburban communities, the number of home broadband users grew from 7% to 32% of the online population.
  • In rural communities, the number of home broadband users grew from 3% to 19% of the online population.

Additionally, in October 2002, about 25% of rural Internet users said they did not think that a high-speed connection to their home was available. Only 5% of urban users and 10% of suburban Internet users said broadband is unavailable.

A portion of rural Internet users depend on Internet connections at places other than work or home. They are more likely than suburban or urban users to say they depend on another place for going online.

Some 22% of Internet users say they go online from at least one other place besides work or home. In some cases, though not most, the people who go online in a third place depend on that connection as their exclusive point of access. Some 8% of rural users say they only log on to the Internet from some place other than work or home, such as a library, a school, or a friend’s house. Just 3% of suburban users do and 5% of urban users depend on some place other than work or home for their Internet connection.

Rural African-Americans are significantly less likely than rural whites to go online, possibly because of differences in income and education.

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 pursue many of the same online activities as urban and suburban users, but they are more likely to look for religious or spiritual information and less likely to engage in transactions.

While the differences are not gaping, rural users are less likely than urban and suburban users to have bought a product online, made a travel reservation, or done their banking online. Even rural users who have been online a few years or more are still less likely to have ever performed transactions over the Web than their urban and suburban counterparts.

Compared to their urban and suburban counterparts, rural users:

  • Are less likely to bank online — 28% bank online, while 35% of urban users and 35% of suburban users bank online.
  • Are less likely to have bought a product online — 57% have done so, while 63% of suburban users and 61% of urban users have bought a product online.
  • Are less likely to have made a travel reservation online — 49% have done so, while 58% of suburban users and 60% of urban users have made a travel reservation online.

Meanwhile, rural users are more likely than their counterparts to search for religious or spiritual information. Some 35% of online rural Americans have sought religious and spiritual information online, compared to 27% of those who live outside rural areas. Among rural users, gathering religious or spiritual information is more popular than banking online (28%), looking for a place to live (26%), and downloading music (26% in June 2003; 13% in November-December 2003). 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.

Rural Internet newcomers are wary of technology, but those with experience embrace it.

Rural newcomers are more likely to hold mixed feelings about computers and technology than are urban and suburban newcomers. Fully half of rural residents say that they hold “mixed feelings” toward computers and technology, whereas 32% of urban users say this and 27% of suburban users say this. But rural users with some experience with the technologies are more likely than others to say they like them.

Rural Communities and the Internet: Summary of Findings at a Glance