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Digital Divide Persists, Though 53% of Farms Conduct Business on Internet

More than half of U.S. farm operators say they do business over the internet, a 13-point increase in six years, as ownership of computers and access to the internet blossomed, according to USDA. Nonetheless, the Pew Research Center says rural Americans are much less likely than their city counterparts to have a smartphone or broadband service at home.

“Nationally, 75% of farms reported having access to the internet, with 73% of farms having access to a desktop or laptop computer,” said the USDA’s Farm Computer Usage and Ownership report, compiled every two years. The new report was based on a survey of more than 20,000 operators in June.

Some 53% of farms said they conducted business on the internet, compared to 40% in 2013. Operators were nearly as likely to say they used a desktop or laptop computer for farm business — 49% — as they would report using a smartphone or tablet, 52%. They were slightly more likely to purchase materials digitally than to market their goods online.

The portion of farms with internet access was comparable to the home broadband rates reported by Pew Research Center earlier this year. Farms most commonly use DSL and satellite connections, which run at slower speeds than cable or fiber optic connections. And Pew said there was more than a 10-point gap separating rural adults from metropolitan adults in having a smartphone or home broadband.

In its annual report, Mobile Technology and Home Broadband, Pew said mobile technology is widely embraced; 81% of adults own a smartphone, compared to 35% in 2011, and 37% say they mostly used their smartphones to access the internet. One in four adults does not subscribe to home broadband, and half of them say the smartphone does everything they need. “In addition, 80% of these nonbroadband users say they are not interested in getting high-speed connections at home.”

“For some Americans without traditional broadband, smartphones may help bridge these gaps in connectivity,” said the report. “Overall, 17% of Americans are now smartphone-only internet users — meaning they own a smartphone but do not subscribe to broadband internet service at home. This share has roughly doubled since 2013.” Twenty percent of rural adults were smartphone-only users.

Satellite was the most common type of internet service in the USDA report, used b 26 % of farms, followed by DSL at 22%, mobile 18%, cable 16%, fiber optic 12%, dial-up 3% and 3% unknown. Satellite gained in usage and DSL declined since 2017, while the other formats held steady except for fiber optic. Its share rose by 3 points, same as satellite.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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