Rural America Closing Broadband Gap

The much lamented gap between rural and non-rural home broadband adoption, though still substantial, is narrowing.

According to a new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 24 percent of adult rural Americans went online with a high-speed connection by end of 2005, compared to 39 percent of home broadband users in urban and suburban areas.

In 2003, nine percent of rural Americans had broadband at home, less than half the rate (22 percent) in urban and suburban American.

For overall rural Internet use – dial-up and broadband – the penetration rate for adult rural Americans lagged the rest of the country by 8 percentage points at the end of 2005 (62 percent to 70 percent margin). This is about half the gap that existed at the end of 2003.

“Growth in rural broadband adoption has been fast relative to urban and suburban areas in the past two years,” the Pew report states.

As rural Internet users embrace broadband, the Internet profile of rural America is slowly becoming more like the rest of the nation.

“Rural broadband users are no different than home high-speed users elsewhere; they go online more often and do more online activities than dial-up users,” Pew report author John B. Horrigan said in a statement. “But with a lower proportion of broadband users in rural America than elsewhere, the result is that rural Americans, in aggregate, have a more distant relationship with the Internet than urban and suburban Americans.”

That is not case, however, when it comes to rural broadband users in the workplace, where the gap is small and statistically insignificant: 72 percent of rural workers have broadband access at work, compared with 75 percent of urban and suburban online workers.

Nor are rural broadband users any different than their urban/suburban counterparts as to where they get their high-speed connections. More than 90 percent of rural broadband subscribers have cable modems or DSL, numbers that mirror cable and DSL penetration in other parts of the country.

“Since rural areas are expensive to wire for high-speed access, some advocates for rural broadband hope wireless high-speed may provide a solution,” the report states. “There is not yet much evidence that this is happening on a widespread basis.”

The report does note that use of fixed wireless or satellite service for rural home broadband access has grown from barely one percent in 2002 to five percent by the end of 2005.

In analysis of specific activities, the report says are several instances in which rural users are more likely than non-rural users to certain things online. Rural Internet users, for instance, are more likely to take classes for credit online and download screensavers and video games.

“For certain things, like taking classes online, the Internet is a real ‘distance-killing’ benefit for rural Americans,” said Katherine Murray, research assistant for the project and co-author of the report.

The report also claims demographic factors also come into play when considering rural broadband penetration rates.

Included in those factors is that rural America has a greater share of seniors and older Americans go online at lower rates than other age groups.

Income also plays a role.

According to the study: “More rural Americans fall in the lower end of the nation’s income distribution; 33 percent of rural respondents in our…data say they live in households with incomes below $30,000 annually compared with 24 percent of non-rural respondents.”

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