August 30, 2010 By Ulf Wolf
A Minnesota Public Radio report sheds some light on what may be a deeper divide than the lack of fiber or 4G networks.
A new survey, prepared by the University of Minnesota Crookston and the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter, was released this week, showing that a majority of rural Minnesotans actually have access to faster Internet connections.
But having access to and actually using are two different things.
In fact, according to the report, even though the trend toward better Internet access across rural Minnesota is improving, one in four Minnesota households, mostly older and poorer residents, have no computer at home, and are in no position to avail themselves of broadband connections even when they are available.
Ten years ago, only 6 percent of Minnesota's rural residents had access to faster Internet connections. By 2005 this number had risen to about 25 percent. Today, nearly two-thirds of those living in rural areas can in fact buy a fast Internet connection, could they afford it.
The Actual Divide
For rural Minnesota, it comes down to age and income as the factors that determine the digital divide.
According to the radio report, more than 80 percent of Minnesota's rural residents 55 and younger have a computer at home, compared to less than 40 percent of people who are 65 or older.
Income brackets show a similar trend, as while more than 87 percent of those making $50,000 a year or more have a computer at home, only 42 percent of those making less than $25,000 do.
Education and Finance
In order to bridge the digital gap, and bring better health care, education and business development to rural parts of not only Minnesota but other parts of rural America, the older rural population must first receive sufficient education about the Internet and broadband to see their benefit, and given that the demand is now raised, a means to actually supply these areas at an affordable rate has to be found.
A University of Minnesota summit, organized by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and featuring FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, and focusing on rural broadband access drew a standing-room-only audience last Tuesday.
Genachowski said the challenge to closing the Internet divide in rural areas is to find a way to use the universal service fee that all telephone customers pay, to help expand broadband access.
Some smaller communities in Minnesota are getting a financial boost to help improve broadband access, in the form of federal grants.
Lac Qui Parle County was one recipient -- receiving a grant worth more than $9.6 million.
Among other things, it means 5,000 of the county's 8,000 residents will someday have access to a fiber optic Internet connection.
Access does not mean Affordable
However, again, having access to does not translate directly to affording and buying. Not only do those on the other side of the Digital Divide need to see the benefits of a broadband connection, but this connection has to be made available within the means of this public. Black fiber in the ground means nothing if no one can afford to light it.
You can lead a digital horse to water, but if he cannot afford to drink, you'd better re-think your approach.
Digital Citizen Engagement - or how Government-IT empowers Citizen Participation and Input - is an important aspect of 21st century life given all the challenges communities face. This is a subject very dear to my heart and one I like to keep a constant finger on. This blog shares my findings and impressions with those interested.