Digital Lag In Rural U.S.

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A digital divide still exists between urban, rural and metro areas — and speed is integral to bridging that gap — according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study released Wednesday.

“Broadband access is viewed as necessary to fully utilize the Internet’s potential,” the report, titled Broadband Internet’s Value for Rural America, concluded. “As the Internet economy has matured, more applications now require higher data-transmission rates, even in the case of simple shopping Web sites.”

While 55% of U.S. adults had broadband access in 2007, the study found, only 4% of adults in rural households could make the same claim. The shortfall “may” be due to the cost of service or lack of service due to lower returns on sparsely populated areas, the study said.

Some of the lower-service areas attributed to small or aging populations, the study found, are clustered in North and South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota and Oregon. But areas with similar population characteristics in Nebraska, Kansas and Vermont had higher-than-expected broadband penetration, “suggesting that policy, economic, and social factors can overcome common barriers,” the study said.

The study found that 70% of Internet-connected rural households had broadband service. By comparison, 84% of urban homes had broadband connections.

The report was released the same day that co-author Peter Stenberg was a panelist at a Federal Communications Commission broadband-adoption workshop, where he drew on the study to advocate for closing that divide.

The USDA has $2.5 million in economic-stimulus grant and loan money to help do just that, along with existing programs under the 2008 Farm Act.

“The USDA study adds more weight to the overwhelming evidence that broadband is becoming critical infrastructure and driving the economy throughout America,” said Derek Turner, research director at media-reform advocacy group Free Press, in response to the study. “Closing the rural digital divide should be a top priority for policy-makers, who must ensure that economic stimulus funds reach the rural areas that need them the most.

“We must also finally tackle the long-needed reform of the Universal Service Fund,” he added. “Policies that will foster a world-class broadband infrastructure for all Americans are essential to the future of rural America.”

The USF, paid into by commercial providers, underwrites landline telephone service in locales that are hard to reach or uneconomical to build out. There is no similar subsidy for broadband deployment.