Hispanics are less connected to the Internet than whites and blacks, using Web sites less frequently and expressing more discomfort with computers and technology in the workplace, according to a new survey.
That could set back the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group, experts say, as more employment, educational and health-care opportunities migrate online.
According to a new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation-Harvard University poll, 72 percent of Hispanics say they use the Internet, lower than the percentages of whites and African Americans. Fully 57 percent of Hispanics say they don't have enough knowledge about computers and technology to be competitive in the current job environment.
That compares with 46 percent of whites and 45 percent of blacks who feel the same level of insecurity about their technological skills.
"I haven't been on the Internet in literally months and months," said Ben Zilberberg, a 59-year-old Latino in Miami. "I'm beginning to feel like a fossil. But I keep saying, 'One day, one day I'll learn how to use it.' "
The relatively low rates of Internet usage among Hispanics is partly explained by underlying demographic characteristics, including income and language. Hispanics in families earning $40,000 or more each year are as likely to be online as are whites and African Americans with similar household incomes. Lower-income Hispanics are less apt to use the Internet.
Among Hispanics who were interviewed in English, 88 percent said they use the Internet or e-mail at least occasionally. That figure falls to barely more than half - 53 percent - among those who chose to take the poll in Spanish.
More Hispanics can only get online through cell phones, while whites and blacks more frequently have a choice between a fixed wireline connection and a computer at home, said Gretchen Livingston, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center.
"What underlies the lag seems to relate to economic factors," she said.
That is the case for Otilia Arredondo, 58, a retiree in Sweetwater, Tex. Arredondo, who worked as a cashier and bank teller but is now on a fixed income, looked into getting broadband at home last year, but bundling the cost with her cable television would have driven her bill past $100 a month.
"It's a little too expensive yet," Arredondo said. "I would like to have it, but with everything else as expensive as it is, you've got to make choices. To me, the Internet is more like an extravagant little thing right now."
The poll showed relative parity across racial lines in the adoption of wireless devices to access the Internet. But analysts say that does not make up for remaining gaps in the use of desktop computers, which tend to provide a greater range of functions than smartphones.
"Mobile use is great for quick information hits and nuggets of information along the way, but it doesn't lend itself to job success," said John Horrigan, vice president of research at the high-tech trade group TechNet.
He and other experts say blacks and Hispanics - particularly younger ones - are early adopters of wireless technology that can take advantage of WiFi hotspots in urban areas.
But the different ways groups are getting onto the Web are also showing up in the kinds of activity done online.
Among Internet users, whites lead Hispanics in getting news online and in making banking transactions on the Internet. About 75 percent of white Internet users said they access health information online, as do 70 percent of African Americans and 62 percent of Hispanics.
In the near future, the difference between wireless and fixed-line connections to the Internet may be less bright. President Obama has proposed an $18 billion plan to blanket the country with high-speed mobile Internet connections in the next five years. He said the plan would create a new economic infrastructure for the nation to better compete with other high-tech powerhouses around the globe.
The trends may be changing across generational lines. Among Hispanics age 18 to 34, 87 percent are online, compared with 37 percent for those ages 60 and up. Among blacks and whites, more than half of those age 60 or older are online. Nearly all young blacks and whites access the Internet.
Raul Brown, a 23-year-old Hispanic who studied computer programming, grew up with a computer in his home and is online 10 to 12 hours a day. He uses the Internet to look for work, keep in touch with friends and keep updated on the news.
"My computer skills and flexibility online helped me get my last job," Brown said.
The Post-Kaiser-Harvard telephone poll was conducted Jan. 27 to Feb. 9 among a random national sample of 1,959 adults. The margin of sampling error for the sample of 826 whites is plus or minus 4 percentage points. It is 6 points for the Hispanic and African American samples.
email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.