Rural Americans Are More Likely to Rely on Their Phone to Get Online





People looking at smartphones

Rural Americans are more likely to get online via smartphones and generally spend less time on the internet, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

Overall, 95% of adults use the internet. Pew Research Center’s National Public Opinion Reference Survey found that 90% have a smartphone, and 80% have a high-speed home internet plan. However, the study shows that rural residents fall below the average user subscribing to a home broadband service. Only 73% of rural Americans have home broadband, compared to 77% in urban areas or 86% in suburbia. 

The survey found that 32% of rural users use the internet “almost constantly,” vs. 43% of suburban users and 48% of urban adults. Across all groups, 41% reported being online constantly, 43% responded “several times a day,” and 5% said they only went online once a day.

When the Pew Research Center looked at smartphone ownership, the group found that 87% of rural adults have one compared to 91% of urban dwellers and 93% of suburban adults. The survey also found rural residents are more likely to be “smartphone dependent,” meaning they only go online via their phone and don’t subscribe to a home internet plan. Of those surveyed, 18% of rural respondents said they are smartphone dependent, up from 8% in 2013. In comparison, 11% of suburban households and 17% of urban residents only access the internet from a mobile device.

Part of the reason rural residents are more likely to use their smartphones is the digital drought found in patches across the country. Statista tallied 318.7 million internet users in 2023 and predicts the number will increase to 323.6 million this year. Rural have historically been offline due to their remote locations. The cost of building out network infrastructure, paired with a lack of affordable plans, leaves many rural residents without access to reliable, high-speed internet.

While more companies are expanding their networks, cost can still play a part in preventing rural households from getting online. Broadband Genie said in July the U.S. is 32nd in affordability and costs users an average of $72.20 for home internet while the average monthly salary is $4,083.26, according to a new study.  

The Federal Communications Commission launched the Affordable Connectivity Act in 2021 to help low-income households get online with a voucher for $30 off services or $75 for Tribal residents. However, the program is expected to shut down this April. On February 21, the Biden administration vowed to invest $772.6 million to bring high-speed internet, clean water, and infrastructure growth to rural communities in 45 states, Puerto Rico, and the Northern Mariana Islands as part of the Investing in America agenda. $51.7 million will expand high-speed internet to rural communities through the ReConnect Loan and Grant Program and the Broadband Technical Assistance Program.

The Education Superhighway is a non-profit also working towards bringing 46.9 million people online who can’t afford it. The group said 25% of unconnected households in the U.S., primarily rural areas, have no access to any wired or wireless broadband service, or the quality is slow and unreliable.

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