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Survey of online access finds digital divide

Jan. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Wireless is on the rise. Nielsen predicts that by the end of 2011, one in two Americans will own a smartphone. That means a lot of jockeying for space on the airwaves. This is part of a special report by Bloomberg Government in the latest isssue of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. Bloomberg's Megan Hughes reports. (Source: Bloomberg)

The Commerce Department's telecom policy arm, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, said 32 percent of U.S. households don't use the Internet at home, a slight decrease from last year.

Forty percent of rural homes don't connect to the Web, compared with 30 percent of urban homes, the agency said. Those who aren't using the Internet say they don't think it is a necessity and that prices are too high, and about 9 percent of people in rural areas say they don't have access to high-speed connections, according to the NTIA.

Often, the poorer areas of the country aren't being offered the fastest download speeds, according to the data.

In the District of Columbia, where about 18 percent of the population is considered poor, only 12 percent of homes can get broadband speeds as high as 25 megabits per second, the study found.

In neighboring Montgomery County, where 5.3 percent of residents live in poverty, the study showed that 98 percent have access to 25 megabit-per-second speeds, which make it easy to engage in video conferencing, streaming downloads and multiplayer video games. In Virginia's wealthy Fairfax and Arlington counties, 99 percent of residents have access to those speeds.

There are exceptions. One in five homes in the city of Baltimore is under the poverty line, but 99 percent of residents get access to speeds of at least 25 megabits per second.

Some industry officials said the government study underrepresents the actual spread of broadband services. For instance, the government reported that 82 percent of homes have access to broadband Internet from cable providers. But the trade association National Cable & Telecommunications Association says cable companies serve 93 percent of homes. About 15 percent of the country gets access to fiber broadband networks.

"We are confident that the cable broadband availability figures we cite are an accurate reflection of the consumer experience and fully expect that the national broadband map will become more accurate as the data collection process continues," said spokesman Brian Dietz.

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