Hispanics now are the second-largest group in the nation on the Internet, a stunning find contained in a report released last week.
Experts predicted that 1999 would be a big year for computer purchases and Internet use among minority groups because of plummeting computer prices and more free online services. But no one foresaw that Hispanics would embrace technology in such a big way.
"That's the headline that has everybody startled," said Adam Clayton Powell III, vice president of technology and programs at the Freedom Forum, a foundation promoting free speech and a free press.
The study by Forrester Research, of Cambridge, Mass., involved 80,000 U.S. households and found that access to the Internet from the home jumped 11 percent for all ethnic groups. Forrester also found that of all families in the survey with computers, 60 percent had purchased their computer in the past two years. The study, conducted in January, has a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percent.
Forrester, an e-commerce research and consulting company, was one of the first technology leaders to state that the Internet was not divided along race or ethnic lines, but by income, education and age. That still is true, said Ekaterina Walsh, author of the report, titled "The Truth About the Digital Divide."
Asian-Americans were the first in the nation to adopt personal computers in large numbers. They are substantially ahead of all groups in computer ownership and online use, studies show. That largely is attributed to Asians' higher education and income levels.
A greater proportion of black households earn less than $15,000 per year, making it more difficult for blacks to buy a computer and connect to the Internet. Blacks get around that obstacle by logging onto the Internet from work, libraries and other locations.
That trend made blacks the fastest-growing group online last year, according to the study.
But the survey's most surprising findings were attributed to Hispanic households, which raced to cyberspace.
About 47 percent are online, compared with 43 percent for non-Hispanic whites. Half have computers at home, about even with non-Hispanic whites. And 62 percent of households bought their equipment in the past two years, the highest purchasing activity of any group.
Now, Hispanics at all income levels are more "wired" than every group except Asian-Americans, Forrester's study showed.
"They exceeded our own expectations," said Walsh, who predicted there would be no digital divide for Hispanics.
Other studies corroborate that Hispanics have heartily endorsed the Internet. Puerto Rico, with a population of 4 million, is said to have nearly 500,000 Internet users, the highest per capita use among Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Costa Rica and Uruguay, according to an article published last year in El Nuevo Dia newspaper in San Juan.