Thursday, February 17, 2011

NYT 2/17/11: Digital divide in rural America

In rural American only 60% of Americans use broadband (10% less than the rest of America). Overall
28% of Americans do not use the Internet at all.

February 17, 2011

Digital Age Is Slow to Arrive in Rural America

COFFEEVILLE, Ala. — After a couple of days in this part of rural Alabama, it is hard to complain about a dropped iPhone call or a Cee Lo video that takes a few seconds too long to load.
The county administrator cannot get broadband at her house. Neither can the sportswriter at The Thomasville Times.
Here in Coffeeville, the only computer many students ever touch is at the high school.
“I’m missing a whole lot,” Justin Bell, 17, said. “I know that.”
As the world embraces its digital age — two billion people now use the Internet regularly — the line delineating two Americas has become more broadly drawn. There are those who have reliable, fast access to the Internet, and those, like about half of the 27,867 people here in Clarke County, who do not.
In rural America, only 60 percent of households use broadband Internet service, according to a report released Thursday by the Department of Commerce. That is 10 percent less than urban households.
Over all, 28 percent of Americans do not use the Internet at all.
The report was developed in conjunction with a national broadband map that was also released Thursday. The map, considered the most comprehensive of its kind, is expected to show a number of discrepancies in the quality and availability of broadband access between rural and urban communities.
The map took five years and $200 million to develop, and is part of a billion-dollar effort to improve Internet access in the United States, particularly in rural areas.
The Obama administration has given $7.2 billion in stimulus money toward the effort, which will pay for things like wiring small communities, developing public computer centers and educating the skeptical on why they should go online in the first place.
Last week, the F.C.C. began the process of changing the $8 billion fund intended to extend telephone service to rural areas to one that extends broadband Internet to areas without it.
“This is like electricity was,” said Brian Depew, assistant executive direction for the Center for Rural Affairs, a nonprofit research group in Lyons, Neb. “This is a critical utility.”
“You often hear people talk about broadband from a business development perspective, but it’s much more significant than that,” he added. “This is about whether rural communities are going to participate in our democratic society. If you don’t have effective broadband, you are cut out of things that are really core to who we are as a country.”
Affordable broadband service through hard wiring and or cellular phone coverage could revolutionize life in rural parts of the country, according to advocates for improving such services. In addition to being able to pay bills or purchase goods not available in nearby towns, isolated people could visit doctors online. They could work from home and take college classes.
Increasingly, interacting with certain branches of government can be done only online. And in emergencies, a lack of cellphone or e-mail can have serious consequences. Emergency alerts regarding severe weather, for example, are often sent only through text or e-mail.
All of that is important, certainly. But there is also a social component to good Internet access. Here in Clarke County, where churches and taxidermy shops line the main roads and drivers learn early to dodge logging trucks hauling pine trees, most people would simply like to upload photos of their children to Facebook.
“Ninety-five percent of the people in this county who want public water can have it, but people can’t even talk to each other around here,” said Sharon Lane, 60, who owns a small logging company with her husband and lives just outside of Coffeeville. It took her three days to try to arrange a meeting with the governor 150 miles away in Montgomery because such inquiries cannot be made over the phone and she had to drive 45 minutes to her daughter’s house to use e-mail.
At home, her cellphone works only if she walks to the porch and stands at the end of a bench. So she uses a local cellphone/walkie-talkie hybrid called Southern Link.
They have dial-up at the office, “but that’s so slow it makes you pull your hair out,” Mrs. Lane said. A satellite dish is out of the question because her house is surrounded by trees.
“It takes 10 times the effort to do what someone else can do in a matter of five minutes,” she said.
For many here, where the median household income is $27,388, the existing cellphone and Internet options are too expensive.
Joyce Graham, who oversees Web-based classes at Coffeeville High School, has struggled with dial-up service at home since 2000. A month ago, she started buying satellite service with help from stimulus money.
“For most people out here, satellite is all you can get, and it’s $70 a month,” she said. “Now who is going to pay that? This is a poor, rural county.”
Not that all of the county is without decent coverage. Some towns have broadband service, and other people can get it using wireless cellular lines.
Sheldon Day, the mayor of Thomasville, about 25 miles northeast of Coffeeville, prides himself on his city’s embrace of technology. Broadband is widely available, police cars have computers and he is planning a system that will allow water meters to be read wirelessly. But even getting e-mail on a smart phone in the middle of town can be maddening.
The digital revolution, he concedes, is coming slowly.
“There are areas within five miles of where I am sitting that don’t have any connectivity, even with cell service,” he said.
Gina Wilson, director of the Thomasville library, oversees 11 terminals with lightning-fast Internet access. They attract the usual array of children and the unemployed during the day, as well as college students who take classes online. At night, people stop by after work to check their e-mail or scroll through Facebook.
Mrs. Wilson noticed that after hours, people would pull into the parking lot, open their laptops and try to use the library’s wireless signal. So she started leaving it on all night, and soon will post a sign on the door with the password (which, if you are in Thomasville and need to get online, is “guest.”)
But even she struggles at home. She lives two miles from the city limits and only began getting broadband service through a Verizon wireless device in December.
There have been efforts to improve the county’s communication services. A group of community leaders, for example, worked for years on a plan to attach microwave technology to the numerous water towers in the area. Making wireless Internet access available throughout the county would cost about $5.5 million, they estimated. They even applied for stimulus money and made it through the first round, but were ultimately turned down.
The tiny Pine Belt Telephone Company also tried for some stimulus money, hoping to run a fiber optic line into Coffeeville. They, too, were turned down.
“Essentially it comes down to the big, national companies not wanting to invest and the lack of interest in certain areas,” said John Nettles, who runs the telecommunication company his father founded 52 years ago. “It’s not much different than the impact the big-box stores have had on rural America and small town businesses.”
A spokesman for AT&T, which offers coverage in parts but not all of Clarke Country, declined to comment.
The State of Alabama is using federal and state grants to help encourage more service in rural areas. They are working with service providers and setting up outreach teams with mobile computer labs to show people why they need the Internet. The theory is that increasing demand will make it more lucrative for companies to invest in the technology and allow them to offer online service at prices that residents can afford.
It is a hard sell, especially among older residents or people with less education. A study last year by the Pew Internet & American Life Project showed that a fifth of adults do not use the Internet because they feel it is not relevant to their lives.
“The people who could benefit from broadband the most use it the least,” said Amelia Hall Stehouwer, a researcher from Auburn University who works with rural Alabama communities.
Still, it will be a long road to the digital age here.
“We are trying to pull ourselves into the 21st century,” Mrs. Lane, the logging company owner, said. “I don’t think the rest of the world understands there is a piece of the world here that is really challenged.”

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