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Americans who don’t use the Internet have more than just their lack of digital communication in common. They are also more likely to be rural, elderly and poor.

About 48% of the 50 million Americans who haven’t gone online in the last year live in nonmetro areas, according to a new report from McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm. In contrast, only about 15% of the overall U.S. population lives in nonmetro areas.

That means the average rural resident is three times more likely to be offline than the average urban resident.

Eighty percent of people who don’t use the Internet are lower income, and more than half of the offline population is aged 55 and up.

The figures are based on a variety of federal data sources, as analyzed by McKinsey in the report “Offline and Falling Behind: Barriers to Internet Adoption.”

Opinions vary about just how much of a world leader the United States is in online use. A Pew Research Internet Project survey from September 2013 shows about 70% of Americans aged 18 and older had broadband at home, up from 66% the year before.

The Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband map says more than 91% of U.S. communities have a broadband-speed connection.

But a report from the World Economic Forum ranks the United States 34th globally in Internet bandwidth. And another report ranked the U.S. 17th in peak connection speeds during the first quarter of 2014, according the McKinsey and Company.

Whatever the nation’s worldwide ranking in broadband use, about 16% of the population remains offline. And getting that group online will mean overcoming some unique challenges, the McKinsey report says.

Unlike developing nations – where lack of equipment and connections and illiteracy are likely roadblocks – U.S. barriers to online use are more likely to be based on the preferences and skills of American consumers. The Pew Research Internet Project reports that access problems alone don’t explain why people are Internet holdouts:

  • About a third of respondents said the Internet lacked “relevance.” They were not interested, didn’t need it or think it’s a waste of time.
  • Another third said they lacked the skills necessary to get online, found the process too difficult, or were physically unable to manage the operation.
  • Nineteen percent said the Internet was too expensive, and 7% said they did not have a connection.

The findings underscore statements from rural broadband advocates that ensuring that Americans have an Internet connection available is not sufficient to bring more Americans online. The nation also needs programs that encourage adoption, or use, of Internet services by offline Americans, they say.

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While developing nations are likely to get more people online by virtue of urbanization and the increased access to broadband that often comes with a move to the city, American urbanization is occurring at a much slower pace after rapid increases in the last century, the report says.

Also, where emerging nations are seeing expansion of the middle class, the gap between rich and poor in the United States is getting bigger, the report said. The report cited a drop in the percentage of Americans who fall into the middle class (from 61% in 1971 to 51% in 2011), a decline in the middle class’s share of household income, and a drop in the wealth of U.S. families from 2000 to 2010. Those income gaps make it harder to get Internet holdouts online.

One factor that will encourage more online use in the U.S. is the wider availability and affordability of smart phones, the report says. “The portion of adult mobile phone owners who use their phone to access the Internet grew from 29% at the start of 2010 to 60% by the end of 2013,” the report said.

That could be especially true in rural areas, where Internet service providers say last-mile wiring is more expensive per customer.

Getting more Americans online means education, the report concludes.

“To increase adoption faster than what current trends indicate, the offline population—many of whom are elderly, underprivileged, or both—need to be educated on both the benefits of the Internet and how to use it,” the report said. “Furthermore, addressing the widening gap between the rich and poor in the United States could help improve affordability of Internet access for those at the bottom of the pyramid.”

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