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The digital divide

Lack of high-speed Internet can hamper growth of rural areas

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Print this page by Richard Foster
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Want to take a trip back through time? Try getting on the Internet in a rural county.

In King and Queen County, where the county government installed a fixed, wireless broadband network last year, County Administrator Tom Swartzwelder says, “This county was dial-up before we put [the county wireless broadband] in, basically. You’re taking people from the cart and horse to a Porsche. You’re skipping the Model A and everything in between. If you lived in a dial-up world, how little would you use the Internet? … They still think of the Internet as the inconvenience of dialup, sitting and waiting for pages to load.”

In rural areas where high-speed Internet availability is spotty at best and may not even be easily available via cellular networks or satellite dishes, there is a growing digital divide. Low-income, disabled, elderly or less educated residents frequently don’t understand what broadband is or that it can be used for more than just Facebook and Netflix.

“A lot of folks don’t know all the things they can do with broadband, especially as you move into the rural areas,” says Sandie Terry, broadband program manager for Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology (CIT). “In these rural areas … people say, ‘I have dialup; it takes care of my email, and that’s all I need.’”

A nonprofit corporation based in Herndon, CIT supports economic development of technology-based endeavors in Virginia. CIT partnered with King and Queen County earlier this year to launch a federally funded pilot study aimed at increasing broadband adoption and awareness of the benefits of high-speed Internet among rural residents.

In April CIT conducted a direct-mail survey of 534 King and Queen households (out of the 2,900 total in the county), collecting information about residents’ computer use, digital literacy and awareness of broadband.

According to preliminary data from the survey, just 68 percent of parents of elementary school students surveyed reported having home Internet access. Furthermore, 17 percent of respondents said they didn’t own a home computer. The top reasons cited for not having a computer were expense (47 percent) and not knowing how to use one (29 percent).

King and Queen’s 6,945 residents are widely dispersed throughout the 72-mile-long, 15-mile wide county, which is largely made up of farmland and timberland. King and Queen had tried for some time to entice a telecommunications company to bring high-speed Internet to the county, but companies said the market wasn’t big enough and installing a network would be cost-prohibitive. Federal grants for rural broadband were a no-go because the county was considered too close to a metro area, being about 60 miles from Richmond.

Creating its own system
Eventually the county decided to form a wireless service authority and install its own high-speed wireless broadband network, piggybacking onto towers being built to upgrade the county’s emergency communications system network.

“No free-market provider was willing to come in and build the infrastructure here,” says Swartzwelder. “The Board of Supervisors felt they had to step in and provide this service to citizens and businesses and school-age children.”

The school system already has benefited from the new county broadband system in multiple ways, including being able to conduct more online Standards of Learning tests simultaneously. “The Internet speeds are more robust, so we’re able to leverage the accessibility of information in ways we weren’t always able to do,” says Superintendent Stanley Jones.

The county broadband network covers about 75 percent of the county, and officials hope to have the rest of the county covered by 2015. However, only a few hundred homes out of a total of 2,900 are taking advantage of the county broadband so far, and the adoption rate has stalled.

In King and Queen, where the population is aging, digital infrastructure can be crucial to a community’s long-term survival and to its residents’ quality of life, Terry says.

“When we’re talking about the digital divide, it is real, and it’s going to grow exponentially,” she says. Communities with high-speed Internet and more access to technology will succeed educationally and economically, in addition to being able to provide better health-care and government services.

Lack of broadband and lack of technologically savvy workers also harms the real estate market and economic development, Terry adds: “They’re going to lose the tax base; they’re going to become older. All of their community assets are going to suffer.”

Managing illness
Additionally, being tech literate can save money. Studies have found that savvy shoppers can save as much as $10,000 a year by comparing prices and shopping online, Terry says. “We’ve got to push out digital literacy training to more of our senior organizations. … Seniors are going to be a key focus of the programs we put in place in King and Queen.”

Bay Aging President and CEO Kathy Vesley-Massey participates in King and Queen County’s broadband work group and agrees that more education is needed. Her Urbanna-based nonprofit provides services to senior citizens in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula that include free computer literacy classes at its 10 senior centers.

In addition to helping seniors combat social isolation by connecting with friends and family via Facebook or Skype, broadband can be even more important for seniors by helping them manage chronic illnesses. “Most of the health-care systems now have some form of patient navigator. You can go online and get all your health records … access what the doctor’s discharge plan was for you, access when your follow-ups are,” Vesley-Massey says. “The tools that are available online are just really, really important to these senior populations.”

“From a social services perspective, so much of our business is going online as well … SNAP benefits, Medicaid,” says King and Queen Department of Social Services Director Betty Dougherty. She also chairs the King and Queen Resource Council and is part of the broadband work group. “With our county being so geographically spread out, they don’t have to drive into social services and fill out a paper application. They can go online and put in their information … and even do a pre-application screening before they submit for benefits.”

CIT plans to submit its full report and recommendations to the volunteer King and Queen County broadband work group by July. Some of those recommendations could include programs to refurbish old computers and distribute them to the elderly and needy, Terry says. Other initiatives could include more digital literacy training and also working with the county government to ensure it’s making the best use of its online assets, such as posting relevant information on its municipal website and providing online payments for tax bills and county fees.

“People say, ‘Well how much broadband do we really need?’ but … we’re going to have more and more devices in our homes connecting to the Internet, so the bandwidth has to come up,” Terry says. “If you consider rural areas where someone’s depending on satellite or 4G mi-fi, that’s not going to sustain those people long. They’re going to end up wanting and needing more bandwidth and if they can’t get it in those areas, they’re going to move out.”

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