June 23, 2002

The Broadband Difference: How online behavior changes with high-speed Internet connections

How online Americans’ behavior changes with high-speed Internet connections at home

The current debate about broadband deployment and adoption is marked by hope and uncertainty.  The hope is that deployment of a high-speed communications infrastructure will bring the telecommunications industry out of its current slump and, more broadly, will stimulate the economy.  The uncertainty relates to the pace of consumer adoption of broadband – that is, whether enough consumers will purchase high-speed service and content to justify investment in broadband networks and applications.

This report focuses on the nature of broadband use in American homes. Roughly 24 million Americans (21% of all Internet users) have high-speed connections at home.  The Pew Internet & American Life Project’s survey of broadband Internet users shows that broadband users spend more time online, do more things, and do them more often than dial-up Internet users.  There are three major ways in which broadband users distinguish themselves from their dial-up counterparts.  For high-speed home users, broadband lets them use the Internet to:

  • become creators and managers of online content;
  • satisfy a wide range of queries for information, and;
  • engage in multiple Internet activities on a daily basis.

Home broadband users have a new proximity to information and a convenient tool for communication that changes the way they find, generate, and manipulate content.  Some uses of the high-speed connection are of the everyday sort – checking the time a movie is showing, finding a recipe, or settling a friendly argument about a factoid.  Many are of greater weight, such as getting health care information off the Internet, taking an online course, or working at home.  Home broadband users are typical early technology adopters – that is, they are wealthy, educated, and male.  Our research shows that even though these demographic characteristics are factors in the broadband difference, the high-speed connection matters most in spurring these online Americans to new levels of Internet use.

For broadband users, the always-on, high-speed connection expands the scope of their online activities and the frequency with which they do them.  It transforms their online experience. This has led to steady growth in broadband adoption among Net users.  Since the Pew Internet Project first inquired about the nature of users’ home connection in June 2000, the number of high-speed home users has quadrupled from 6 million to 24 million Americans.  This places home broadband adoption rates on par with the adoption of other popular technologies, such as the personal computer and the compact disc player, and faster than color TV and the VCR.

Some have raised the concern that a lack of compelling online content, particularly in the entertainment arena, has dampened consumer uptake of broadband.  Our research suggests that most early broadband adopters find plenty to do with their fast connections, especially when it comes to creating online content and performing information searches.  Broadband users are as likely to go online to get job training, as they are to download a video.  To be sure, both applications will benefit from the faster technologies of the future, but the speed of today’s high-speed networks is sufficient to attract growing numbers of users to current applications and features that give them the information that matters to them.

The online surfing patterns of high-speed users reveal two values that policymakers, industry leaders, and the public should bear in mind:

  1. An open Internet is appealing to broadband users.  As habitual posters of content, broadband users seem to desire the widest reach for what they share with the online world.  As frequent searchers for information using their always-on connection, broadband users seek out the greatest range of sources to satisfy their thirst for information.  Walling off portions of the Internet, which some regulatory proposals may permit, is anathema to how broadband users behave. 
  2. Broadband users value fast upload speeds as well as fast download speeds. They not only show this by their predilection to create content, but also by their extensive file-sharing habits.

The three noteworthy features of home broadband users

1. They are creators and managers of online content

Broadband Internet users differ vastly from dial-up users in the way they deal with online content.  For many broadband users, images and data on the Internet are not just things to be viewed passively, but things that these users download, recombine, manipulate, and share with others.  Four in ten broadband users (39%) have at one time or another created content for the Internet by doing such things as creating Web sites, posting their thoughts or other information to existing Web sites, and creating online diaries. Some 16% of broadband users create some kind of content for the Web on a typical day online. A similar number (43%) share files with others (17% on an average day do this) and also display or develop photos online (43% have done this, 14% do it on a typical day). 

Fully 59% of broadband users have at one time created content or shared files with others online; 26% do these things on a typical day.  When it comes to these activities, broadband users are about twice as likely as dial-up users to have ever done these things.  Broadband users are also more active than dial-up users as content downloaders. Some 63% have at one time or another downloaded games, video or pictures, and 50% have at one time or another downloaded music files.  On a typical day, 22% of broadband users download games, videos, or pictures, with 17% downloading music on a typical day.

Content creation is an especially prominent activity for a subset of the broadband population that we call the broadband elite.  These are the quarter of the home broadband population who do 10 or more online activities on a typical day. That represents twice as much daily activity online as is performed by other broadband users, who average about 5 online activities on a typical day1 On any given day, four out of five (81%) members of the broadband elite post content to the Internet, such as updating a Web page, sharing files, or storing information online.  They are equally active downloaders, with 78% downloading information of some kind on a given day.

2. They use their  “always on” connections to satisfy their queries

As much as the broadband connection’s speed, the “always on” nature of a home broadband connection allows users to turn to the Internet for all sorts of information needs.  About two-thirds (68%) of home broadband Internet users say they do more information searches online because of their high-speed connection.  When asked what they have done most online since getting a home broadband connection, a plurality (32%) responded, “looking for information” with emailing a close second (28%).  Broadband users also say they have spent more time online since getting broadband (61% say they do).  Most of the extra time they spend online because of the high-speed connection is due to more information searching.  Because of their active information gathering, home broadband users report that the Internet helps them in various dimensions in their lives: 

  • Close to 9 in 10 broadband users (86%) say the Internet has improved their ability to learn new things.
  • Two-thirds (65%) say the Internet has helped them better pursue their hobbies and interests.
  • Two-thirds (65%) also say it has improved their ability to shop.
  • More than half (55%) say the Internet has improved their ability to do their jobs.
  • Nearly half (47%) say the Internet has improved the way they get health care information.

In each case, broadband users are substantially more likely than dial-up users to say the Internet has helped them get information relevant to their lives.

3. They do many things online on a typical day

The average Internet user with high-speed home access does 7 things online on a typical day, such as getting news, health care information, taking an online course, listening to music, or downloading files.  By contrast, a dial-up user does about 3 things online during a typical day online. The high-speed connection permits broadband users to perform multiple Internet tasks more easily in a given online session or at different times of the day. 

Broadband Internet users are much more likely than dial-up users to be online during a typical day. Fully 82% of broadband Internet surfers are online on any given day, compared to 58% of dial-up users.  They spend more time online than dial-up users (95 minutes on average for high-speed users during any given day, compared to 83 minutes for dial-up). Broadband users do more things online, and it is likely that at times they are multi-tasking by cramming several simultaneous activities into those online sessions.  In addition, they are more than twice as likely as dial-up users to have several online surfing sessions on a given day (43% of broadband users have multiple online sessions per day versus 19% of dial-up users).

Analysis of the broadband elite – those users doing 10 or more activities on a typical day online – suggests there is an emerging broadband lifestyle.  Those living that life do more work at home, less TV watching, more online news-gathering, and spend less time shopping in stores.  With an “always-on” Internet connection, a member of the broadband elite might be “instant messaging” friends or work colleagues, listening to a favorite radio station online, booking an airline ticket, or scanning an online news site – all at the same time.  The sheer scope of things that the broadband elite do online suggests that the term “killer app” is a misnomer for this set of Internet users.

A typical day online for broadband users 

Communications remains the dominant application. Two-thirds of broadband users (67%) check email on a typical day; 21% do instant messaging; and 71% do both on that typical day. Information seeking comes in next:

  • 46% of broadband users get news online on any given day. In fact, broadband users are more likely to get news online than read a newspaper on an average day (40% do that).
  • 36% of broadband users do job-related research on an average day online.
  • 32% do product research online on a typical day.

Pursuing personal interests is popular, as 41% of broadband users go online during any given day for hobby information and 39% go online just for fun. Multimedia applications are also popular. Overall, 49% of broadband users are accessing some kind of multimedia content during a typical day online.

  • 21% of broadband users do media streaming on any given day
  • 22% play a game on any given day
  • 21% watch a video clip on any given day
  • 22% download games or video on a typical day. 

Financial management and ecommerce benefit from broadband:

  • 21% of broadband users buy a product online on a typical day.
  • 22% do online banking or bill paying on a typical day.
  • 14% buy a travel service of some sort on a typical day.

The social and family lives of broadband users

Not surprisingly, broadband households tend to have a lot of technology.  Fully 69% have more than one computer, and 40% have three or more computers in the house.  The multiplicity of computers has prompted more than half (55%) of broadband households to network their home computers.  A similar number (56%) have installed computer firewalls to protect against viruses and other unwanted cyber-intrusions.  The high-speed connection also has had a beneficial impact on sharing online resources in the house.  Four in ten (43%) say broadband has made it easier to share the computer; half (52%) say it is easier to share the Internet.

Broadband users are more likely than dial-up users to report that their use of the Internet has had a positive impact on connections to family and friends. Three-quarter (76%) of broadband users say the Internet has improved connections to friends (versus 68% of dial-up users) and 71% of broadband users say it has improved connections with family (versus 58% of dial-up users).  Since broadband and dial-up users have equally robust social networks, the always-on connection may lead to a rise in convenience emailing that helps with social connections.

Time use: What broadband access changes

The extra time spent online due to broadband—and the wider range of online activities done by broadband users—comes at the expense of the use of traditional media, shopping in stores, working at the office, and commuting in traffic.  Specifically, for home broadband users:

  • 37% say their Internet use has decreased the time they spend watching television;
  • 31% say their Internet use has decreased the time they spend shopping in stores;
  • 18% say their Internet use has decreased their time reading newspapers;
  • 13% say their Internet use has decreased the time they spend in traffic.

The home broadband connection does result in more work at home.  One-third of home broadband users telecommute.  For that reason, 25% of all broadband users (and 58% of those who telecommute) say the Internet has led them to spend more time working at home.  Broadband users do not report that the Internet has had much impact on the time they spend with family, friends, or attending social events.

  1. Overall, broadband users (the elite and non-elite alike) average 7 online activities on a typical day compared with dial-up users, who average 3 online activities on a typical day.