Digital Gap Widens for Rural Elderly, Poor

[imgbelt img=figure2.jpg]Broadband access is growing in rural America. But the gap between the metro and nonmetro adoption rate is unchanged over the past seven years. And for some groups, the rural broadband divide is getting worse.


EDITOR’S NOTE:  Last week in our series on broadband, the authors wrote about broadband availability. This week the authors look at broadband adoption, or the rate at which individuals choose to subscribe to broadband service.

Rates of residential broadband adoption have grown considerably between 2003 and 2010.  Overall adoption rates have more than tripled from around 20% in 2003 to over 65% in 2010.  Interestingly, the overall “digital divide” between rural and urban households (technically designated as metro vs. nonmetro below) has remained consistent over this period at around 13 percentage points.

rising income inequality and diminishing “equality of opportunity” in the United States.  Effective use of broadband Internet certainly has the potential to increase economic mobility for some historically disadvantaged groups – but only if these households are introduced to the possibilities the technology presents.  In rural areas, in particular, broadband holds a world of opportunities for income generation (examples here and here) and improving education (examples here and here).  The statistics presented in this article, however, are cause for concern.  Historically disadvantaged groups in rural areas seem to be falling further behind in broadband adoption, which can make the situation even worse.

So, while most government policies dealing with broadband have traditionally focused exclusively on providing infrastructure (such as grants or loans to telecommunication companies), there is a case to be made for attempting to increase demand.  Economists have been making this case for a while.  In particular, the much ballyhooed $7.2 billion broadband component of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act only put about 3.5% of those funds toward encouraging sustainable adoption. Programs that help educate rural citizens about the opportunities that broadband presents are a useful complement to investments in the infrastructure itself – and likely deserve a bigger chunk of the pie.

(The next article in this series will focus on what the evidence says about broadband’s impact on the economic health of rural areas.)

Brian Whitacre is an associate professor in the department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University. His research, extension and teaching appointments are focused on rural economic development, with a heavy emphasis on the role of broadband access.

Roberto Gallardo is an associate extension professor at Mississippi State University, where he serves as project manager for the statewide broadband adoption initiative.

Sharon Strover is a Regents Professor in Communication at the University of Texas, where she directs the Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute.  Her teaching and research focus on technology, policy and regulation.

Funding for this study was provided by the National Agricultural and Rural Development Policy Center (NARDeP).