Lower-income households, defined as those with annual incomes of $25,000 or less, compose the fastest-growing segment of Net users, according to figures to be released today by Media Metrix. The number of those households online increased 50 percent in the year that ended in June.
Still, Media Metrix and others cautioned that the increase was an indication of how far behind low-income families remain in getting connected to the Internet. Though 32.1 percent of the U.S. population has an annual income of less than $25,000, the same group makes up only 9.7 percent of the online population.
"Adoption gaps have closed along a number of different demographic lines including age and gender," said study author Anne Rickert. "If there is a continuing digital divide, it occurs along income lines. Lower-income households still represent a tiny percentage of the online population."
While welcoming the findings, others working on digital divide issues cautioned that the surge was not unexpected among a group that is lagging in the race to get online.
"We have to make sure we interpret the results correctly because even at that more rapid increase, they're not keeping pace with how far ahead everyone else was before," Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in an interview. "Frequently someone will say we have the greatest increase in this or that minority community, but it's an indication of how far they have to go."
Economic conditions that have increased the availability of computers fed the uptick in low-income usage, according to Media Metrix. The digital divide also has been the target of numerous state, charitable and corporate initiatives that provide computers and Internet access to lower-income people.
"Now computers are much more of a mainstream medium," said Rickert, citing cheaper computer prices, greater ease of use and more ways to connect to the Internet. "Where four years ago access was the exclusive domain of those able to purchase the equipment, or who were introduced in a white-collar professional capacity, now we see that people from lower-income groups are gaining access to the Web in the workplace, in public schools, in cybercafes and in public libraries."
Media Metrix samples 55,000 U.S. computers selected through random-digit dialing and follow-up mail. Because the sample does not include libraries and schools, the study may undercount the number of lower-income people accessing the Web through such public facilities, Rickert said.
Rickert said the new data should be of particular interest to Internet marketers, especially in its findings that less-experienced, lower-income Web users are spending more time online and surveying a larger number of sites and pages.
The survey found that over the course of a month, low-income people hit more than 700 pages in 13 hours. Top destinations for this group were consumer incentive sites ValuePay.com and DesktopDollars.com.
"What's important here for marketers, advertisers and content providers is that people in higher-income groups, the early adopters, have been online and begun to establish their preferences," Rickert said. "If you're an experienced Web surfer, you're a more streamlined surfer and are spending less time online. Lower-income groups are doing more indiscriminate surfing as they explore the Web and become more familiar with the medium, and as a result (they are) more readily accessible to marketers."
That window of opportunity is likely to close during the next few years as lower-income Net users settle into their own preferences and surfing patterns.
Policy-makers warn that equal access to the Internet in sheer numbers may not be the same thing as equal opportunity online.
"A big issue is speed of access," Pelosi said. "In the home, low-income households have to have the speed of access that is available in school and libraries and other people's homes. The digital divide is not just about who is on, but how they are on."