The urgency of promoting universal broadband access and adoption has become something of an article of faith in many Washington policy circles, but the latest research from the Pew Internet Project suggests that a narrow majority of Americans aren't convinced that the government should involve itself with pushing broadband expansion.
Fifty-three percent of respondents said that driving affordable broadband access was either "not too important" a priority, or that the government should stay out of it altogether.
"As broadband technologies have been adopted in the majority of American homes, a debate has arisen about the role of government in stepping in to ensure availability to high-speed Internet access for all Americans," study author Aaron Smith said in a statement. "The majority think not."
Pew found that the 21 percent of adults who say they don't use the Internet are especially opposed to government intervention, with 45 percent of non-users saying the government should not attempt to engineer affordable universal access.
But that sentiment runs at odds with the cornerstone of the Obama administration's communications policy, which has made broadband access and adoption the chief priority of the Federal Communications Commission and attracted many prominent advocates in Congress.
The very first major piece of legislation of Obama's presidency, the economic stimulus bill, allocated more than $7 billion to fund new broadband projects and adoption programs, and directed the Federal Communications Commission to enact a national broadband plan that set out a 10-year blueprint for regulatory and legislative policies to deliver affordable access to high-speed Internet service to every American.
According to Pew's study, the broadband adoption rate flattened over the last year. In a similar study in 2009, Pew reported that 63 percent of adult Americans said they had broadband at home. This year, that figure had ticked up to just 66 percent, which Pew noted is statistically insignificant.
The stalled adoption rate held consistent across all demographic groups with the notable exception of African Americans. That segment reported a 22 percent increase in broadband adoption over the past year, according to Pew.
Adults who said they don't use the Internet at all cited a variety of reasons, with many saying they are not interested in going online, that they don't think the Web would offer them relevant content, or that they aren't comfortable or capable of getting online without help.
The survey respondents were split when asked about the disadvantages that non-broadband users face. On no single issue did a majority of respondents say that lack of broadband access would be a "major disadvantage," but 43 percent noted that it would be a setback for job seekers or those looking to add new career skills.
Thirty-four percent said that the absence of a broadband connection is a major disadvantage for people looking for health information.