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Many still on sidelines of digital revolution

NEW YORK — The Obama administration has poured billions of dollars into expanding the reach of the Internet, and nearly 98 percent of American homes now have access to some form of high-speed broadband. But tens of millions of people are still on the sidelines of the digital revolution.

“The job I’m trying to get now requires me to know how to operate a computer,” said Elmer Griffin, 70, a retired truck driver from Bessemer, Ala., who was recently rejected for a job at an auto-parts store because he was unable to use the computer to check the inventory. “I wish I knew how, I really do. People don’t even want to talk to you if you don’t know how to use the Internet.”

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Griffin is among the roughly 20 percent of American adults who do not use the Internet at home, work, and school, or by mobile device, a figure essentially unchanged since Barack Obama took office as president in 2009 and initiated a $7 billion effort to expand access, chiefly through grants to build wired and wireless systems in neglected areas of the country.

Administration officials and policy experts say they are increasingly concerned that a significant portion of the population, around 60 million people, is shut off from jobs, government services, health care, and education, and that the social and economic effects of that gap are looming larger. Persistent digital inequality — caused by the inability to afford Internet service, disinterest, or a lack of computer literacy — is also deepening racial and economic disparities in the United States, experts say.

“As more tasks move online, it hollows out the offline options,” said John B. Horrigan, a senior research fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “A lot of employers don’t accept offline job applications. It means if you don’t have the Internet, you could be really isolated.”

The figures also show that Internet use overall is much higher among those with at least some college experience and household income of more than $50,000.

Low adoption rates among older people remain a major hurdle. Slightly more than half of Americans 65 and older use the Internet, compared with well over three-quarters of those under 65. In addition, Internet use is lowest in the South, particularly in Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas.

Willa Ohnoutka, 78, who has lived in the same house in suburban Houston for 40 years, said she did not use the Internet at all. “I use my telephone,” Ohnoutka said. “I get news on the TV. I’m just not comfortable involving myself with that Internet.”

Others cite expense as the reason they do not use the Internet.

The Obama administration allocated $7 billion to broadband expansion as part of the 2009 economic stimulus package. Most of it went to build physical networks. About half of those infrastructure programs have been completed, with Internet availability growing to 98 percent of homes from fewer than 90 percent.

About $500 million from the package went toward helping people learn to use the Internet. Those programs were highly successful, though on a small scale, producing more than half a million new household subscribers to Internet service, Commerce Department statistics show.

Some programs, like the federally financed Smart Communities, have shown promising results. Smart Communities, a $7 million effort in Chicago that was part of the administration’s $7 billion investment, provided basic Internet training in English and Spanish for individuals and small businesses. Between 2008 and 2011, the Smart Communities participants registered a statistically significant 15 percentage-point increase in Internet use compared with that in other Chicago community areas.

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