US Household Penetration of Telecommunications, 1920-2015

US Household Penetration of Telecommunications 1920 2015

Source: adapted from US Department of Commerce & Nielsen Home Technology Report. US Census Bureau, (Table No. 1440. Selected Communications Media: 1920 to 1998). Telephone includes land lines and cell phones. Broadband includes Wi-Fi.

The diffusion of telecommunications follows a typical logistic curve from an early phase of adoption, a fast penetration of the technology in the consumer market, and then a slowdown phase as the market is saturated and the technology has achieved maturity and ubiquity. There is also the possibility of a phase of obsolescence where the technology is removed to be replaced by something more efficient. Although the telephone was introduced first, its wiring requirements led to its slow diffusion. Because of its wireless characteristics and simple technology, the radio diffused rapidly in the years (1920s and 1930s) it was introduced and remained a telecommunication system available in almost every household. A similar observation applies to television, which rapidly diffused in the 1950s and 1960s. Some communications standards, such as the VCR, are also marked by obsolescence since the standard has officially been abandoned, to be replaced by the DVD, which is being replaced by video streaming. The last VCRs were manufactured in 2016. Substitution is also gradually taking place concerning telephones. While having a high level of diffusion (more than 95% of households), fewer households are using landlines, but cellular phone services instead.

An important element that favors the diffusion of media technology is the provision of content. To help radio sales in the 1920s, radio manufacturers such as RCA started to acquire radio stations and sponsor various entertainment shows. This eventually led to the development of “soap operas” as consumer products manufacturers recognized the advertising potential of the new media in the 1930s. A similar process took place with television in the 1950s and 1960s. Even with the digital revolution, the issue of providing content in order to sell devices remains fundamental. For instance, Apple started its digital store (iTunes) to support the sales of its iPod devices, which substantially expanded with the introduction of smartphones and tablet computers. This content availability is starting to impact the ownership of televisions, which has started to decline. People are now able to use mobile devices to view live or streamed media elements.