The wrong side of the digital divide
Jack M. Geller, Ph.D.
Back in 1999, I was meeting with a group of academic and government leaders when someone mentioned the growing diffusion of high-speed broadband Internet service throughout the Twin Cities metro. Of course my question was, “So what do you think about broadband throughout rural Minnesota?” And surprisingly, the primary response was, “Well … we really hadn’t thought about it.”
Much has changed throughout rural Minnesota since then. In the year 2000 less than half of all rural households had an Internet connection and only 6 percent reported having a broadband connection. Today 60 percent of all rural households are online and approximately 40 percent of all rural households have a broadband Internet connection. Simply put, over the last few years the adoption of broadband services throughout rural Minnesota has been not just growing but accelerating. So what exactly is driving all these families to purchase a more expensive broadband connection?
Well, each year when we conduct what has become our annual Internet surveys, we not only ask rural residents about their technology purchases, we also question them about what they do online. And for several years in the earlier part of this decade, we found, unremarkably, that people who connected to the Internet using a broadband connection did exactly the same things online that people with dial-up connections did. The only difference was that those with a broadband connection were able to do these things much faster and more conveniently. Everyone used email; they all surfed the web for fun; many conducted price comparisons of an upcoming purchase; many conducted research on a medical condition; and we all check the weather online – yep, in Minnesota we ALL check the weather!
However, in more recent years people’s activities have diverged in a remarkable way, depending on whether they have broadband or dial-up service. Today the Internet seems to be driven by at least three main factors: personal entertainment, business and commerce, and public services. It also seems that what a person does online is driven by the speed of their Internet connection — and vice versa.
On the personal entertainment side, you would have to be living under a rock to have not heard about websites such as Myspace, YouTube, iTunes, NetFlix, and the list goes on and on. The widespread appeal of downloading video and music files, engaging in social networking, watching streaming videos and satisfying one’s personal entertainment needs is hard to overestimate. But the fact is that for all practical purposes these new services require you to have a broadband connection. The amount of data transferring back and forth is just so large, slower dial-up speeds virtually lock a person out of many of these activities.
Business and commerce are also experiencing explosive growth on the Internet. In 2001 fewer than 30 percent of rural Minnesotans with Internet service reported that they purchased goods or services online. Today that percentage has risen to around 70 percent. And it’s not just businesses such as Amazon.com or eBay. Think about the real estate market’s newfound dependence on the Internet, the acceptance of online banking and online investing, and the millions of business-to-business transactions that occur over the Internet every day. As with personal entertainment, many of these new applications rely on higher-speed connections to perform optimally.
Last but not least, one should not overlook the effort government expends to find efficiencies in the delivery and processing of public services on the Internet. Today many Americans file their taxes online, as do the majority of businesses. Consumers can buy their car tabs online. You can even submit unemployment claims online. Locally, you can often pay your municipal utility bill online and purchase all types of permits, building and otherwise. And that’s just the beginning. Our state, federal and local governments will continue to aggressively accelerate their efforts to seek efficiencies by pushing more and more public services onto the Internet. So don’t be surprised if within five years we start hearing about pilot tests of actual voting online. Imagine that — the need for an Internet connection to fully participate in our democracy!
The main point here is that if I were asked back in 2000 what the consequences were of rural Minnesotans being on the wrong side of the “digital divide,” my answer would have been, “Not that much.” But things are changing. From the way we interact with each other to the way we entertain ourselves, to the way we conduct our business and the way we interact with our government, the Internet is rapidly and functionally integrating itself into our daily lives. So today I would say that the consequences of being on the wrong side of the digital divide are getting greater and greater. Rural Minnesotans can’t afford to get left behind.
(Dr. Geller is president of the Center for Rural Policy and Development. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).