December 2, 1999 | By: Haven Miller
LEXINGTON, KY

As we approach the new millennium and all its communications marvels, one sobering fact tends to dampen the enthusiasm of rural computer users: It's harder for them to connect to the Internet than people who live near cities.

Recent U.S. Department of Commerce figures show urban dwellers earning less than $35,000 are 25 percent more likely to have Internet access than people living in rural areas with similar income. A high-income household in the city is more than 20 times as likely to have Internet access as a low-income household in the country.

The reason for these differences is complex, and involves economic, social, and technical issues. Part of the problem has to do with the geographic realities of delivering telecommunications services to remote areas.

"For many rural areas, a key problem is the distance between the customer and the central switch at the provider's end, and it involves more than just Internet service," said Tom Rowley, research consultant for the TVA Rural Studies program at the University of Kentucky. "There are various kinds of advanced telephone services that require switching. The farther you get from the central switch, the less likely you are able to get good, clean, uninterrupted service."

In a recent TVA report on rural telecommunication, Rowley noted that even though about 94 percent of U.S. households have basic phone service, only about 25 percent have access to the Internet. In rural areas the number tends to be lower because of lower incomes, lower quality of infrastructure, higher costs of service, and lower education levels. Education is particularly important because the more education a person has, the more likely he or she is to adopt and use new technologies.

"The physical connection is only valuable if the individual who is connected has the skills to use the technology," said David Freshwater, UK agricultural economist and program manager of TVA Rural Studies. "If the end user does not have the skills to use the telecommunication system, or fails to appreciate the opportunities it offers, then all the infrastructure in the world won't help."

According to Freshwater, rural communities need to start addressing the technology instruction needs of both youth and adults. He said computer skills and ability to use the Internet are no longer just a luxury – they are now a practical necessity.

"In some sense, everyone has to work with computers now – businesses, schools, even the person who delivers your packages or takes your order to buy something," Freshwater said.

"Not having technology skills could actually hurt you in terms of community opportunities," said Rowley. "We have to remember that the supercommunications highway is a two-lane road which can bring business into your rural community, but also suck business out if your community doesn't have the ability to seize opportunities when they arise."

In his report, Rowley cited several hurdles rural areas must overcome to correct the imbalance that exists between rural and urban telecommunications opportunities. Among those hurdles are rural resistance to the adoption of new technology, a rural tendency toward economic conservatism, fewer rural providers of technology training, and higher per capita costs of serving rural areas with relatively few people and businesses.

"Telecommunications offer a way for rural areas to be more competitive, but improvements in both infrastructure and education have to happen in order for rural communities to reach their potential," said Rowley.

"Having telecommunications in your community and being able to use it is no guarantee of success, but without it you are limited in your opportunities," said Freshwater. "It's like reading or writing for a person, or having roads and sewers for a town. It's a necessity – something people look for as part of their minimal set of expectations about a person or place."

The complete TVA Rural Studies report "Rural Telecommunications: Why Your Community Isn't Connected and What You Can Do About It" by Tom Rowley is available for download at http://www.rural.org/publications/Rowley99-1.pdf from the TVA Rural Studies website www.rural.org.

Contact: 

Writer: Haven Miller (606) 257-3784
Sources: Tom Rowley, t-mrowley@juno.com ; David Freshwater, dave@rural.org, 606-257-7328