- The "digital divide" once referred to the gap between those who had computers and those who did not, but now it refers more to those who have broadband Internet and those who do not
- Those without broadband access not only have limited access to online retail opportunities, they also pay more to access government services, higher education, and health care
Every time America’s economy takes a great leap forward, its rural heartland seems to get left behind. After electricity had begun to light up our cities, it took 60 years to reach the mountains of Appalachia and the hills of Texas. The Interstate Highway System of the 1950s bypassed countless small towns, turning many a Main Street into a retail ghost town.
Today, as the information superhighway becomes a backbone of the U.S. economy, Sharon Strover works to keep history from repeating itself. The College of Communication professor and director of the Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute has been researching the digital divide between rural and urban America — and taking part in a multibillion-dollar effort to bridge it.
That digital divide is a moving target, acknowledges Strover. “Originally, it referred to those who had and didn’t have computers. There were gaps based on income, location, age and sex. That gap closed, and the next gap became access to the Internet.” Today, she says, the divide is over access to broadband Internet, the speedy service that’s becoming crucial to buying and selling online.
The gap between city and country might be getting wider. Historically, it’s averaged around 10 percent. But in 2009, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that 46 percent of rural adults had broadband subscriptions, versus 63 percent of adult Americans overall.
Though the gulf is obvious, says Strover, its effects are harder to pin down. Early studies found that broadband gave a boost to rural economies. But those studies looked at regions that also had other economic assets, such as thriving tourist industries. Recent studies of more distressed areas have not documented the same benefits.
If broadband doesn’t always bring economic gains, she says, its absence clearly leads to economic losses. Not only are local businesses frozen out of the New Economy, but citizens spend more for basic services, from renewing their driver’s licenses to pursuing higher education.
“When gas was cheaper, it seemed viable to travel to a community college 30 or 40 miles away,” says Strover. “Now, people would love to take advantage of the online courses that community colleges operate.”
Health care also takes a hit. Many rural hospitals, which lack specialists and the latest equipment, look to the Internet for fast consultations and remote diagnostic services. Over a dialup connection, just sending a set of X-rays could take all night.
Help is on the horizon. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 set aside $7.2 billion to extend broadband access to unserved and underserved areas. Channeled through the Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the biggest chunk goes to infrastructure: from laying cables to building middle-mile facilities that connect local networks to national ones.
But infrastructure is only half the battle, says Strover. Building it does not guarantee that users will come. The missing links are marketing and education: training rural residents on how they can tap into broadband’s vast capabilities.
The USDA hired Strover, along with researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Kentucky, to assess the impact of bringing broadband to the heartland. Between 2005 and 2008, they surveyed four different communities before and after getting wired, from Kentucky coal-mining towns to mostly Hispanic counties in South Texas.
They found that educating the public made a crucial difference in how many residents plugged into the new service. The biggest impact came in Pike County, Kentucky, where community leaders got involved, from the mayor on down. Local institutions put on forums and training sessions. In three years, broadband adoption tripled, from 12 percent to 45 percent of the population. The digital divide between Pike County and urban Kentucky counties had nearly closed.
It’s a good first step, she says, that the federal broadband program includes $200 million for public computer centers and $250 million for education. The next step should be coaxing providers to apply for that money. “If we give money to Internet service providers, we should insist on community engagement. It might be subcontracting with the local economic development authority or a community college to do some training.”
With the right education and outreach, she says, small towns can be steered up the entrance ramps to the information superhighway. “It gets back to whether we’re a society that attempts to ensure that all our population has equivalent access to resources, or [one that] lets itself drift into an environment of haves and have-nots.
“The digital divide will keep getting redefined. There will always be a gap between where the newest and greatest innovations are introduced and where they get them last. To me, what that means is that we have to be very cognizant and keep track of the investment we need to make, to maintain opportunities for everybody across the country.”