Digital Divide Separates Rural, Urban Internet Users

Access to high-speed Internet can differ substantially between urban and rural dwellers, according to a new report by the Center for Rural Policy and Development.

The center, based in St. Peter, Minn., says people in rural areas have a harder time getting broadband access at competitive and reasonable prices.

The study shows, for example, that about 44 percent of homes in the Twin Cities area have high-speed Internet. That compares with just over 27 percent in rural Minnesota.

The center interviewed nearly 15-hundred Minnesotans in October and November of last year, and published the study last week.

Computer Ownership Flat

“The data collection process yielded 759 completed interviews from a rural 80 county sample and 691 completed interviews for a seven county metro sample,” said the report, a copy of which was obtained by TechNewsWorld. “The data were then weighted by age, based upon current U.S. census estimates.”

The study’s major findings include the fact that overall levels of computer ownership in rural areas have been flat for some time. “Ownership estimates from 2003 through 2005 are all within three percent of each other, well within the margin of error, suggesting that there is no evidence of discernable growth within this time frame,” said the study.

What is more, there are significant differences in adoption of technology between rural and urban households, the study said. “While 62 percent of rural households report owning a home computer, 73.1 percent of metro households report likewise. Similarly, 54.0 percent of rural households report having Internet connectivity, vs. 64.3 percent of metro households. And 27.4 percent of rural households report connecting to the Internet with a broadband connection, compared to 43.9 percent of metro area households.”

Broadband Usage Growing

Of those households reporting Internet connectivity, the majority now report connecting with some type of broadband connection, rather than a dial-up connection. “This is true in both metro and rural households,” said the study.

The research demonstrates that, as with previous socio-economic studies, those who are more likely to adopt digital technologies are younger and more affluent, rather than older and poorer. The study also found that “families that report having school age children in the home are much more likely to adopt these technologies.”

The technologies influenced by children in the home include computers, Internet connectivity and broadband. Still, metro area respondents without school-age kids adopted these technologies at consistently higher levels than rural respondents without school age kids, the study said.

Interestingly, the study indicated that rural residents were much more likely to enroll in distance learning programs over the Internet, and to engage in work for an employer, by computer.

Concern over rural Internet usage is growing all over the country. Last month, the Board of Supervisors in San Benito County, Calif., voted unanimously to partner with the County Office of Education and provide US$500 seed money for a program, which will get a trial run at Tres Pinos and Jefferson Elementary schools. The education office will match the county’s contribution and be in charge of hiring someone to be available in the evenings to teach residents how to navigate the Web and monitor how they use it.

“The cost is very minor,” County Superintendent of Schools Tim Foley said. “I think what is significant is it’s a partnership between the county and the County Office of Education that will benefit a significant population of the county that is underserved.”

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