body top image
Issue 5: Current Developments

The Digital Divide - An Appalachian Ohio Perspective

John C. Hoag, Ph.D.
McClure School of Communication Systems Management
Ohio University, Athens Ohio

The objective of this paper is to assess the role of satellite communication with respect to the Digital Divide in the United States. A secondary objective is to review the capabilities, capacity, and availability of current solutions in light of potential applications in other markets and situations.

This paper contains a review of the Digital Divide in general with additional attention to local Ohio developments and the use of satellite broadband Internet service. We then discuss different satellite-based solutions for residential and commercial Internet access.

I. Digital Divide - Current Perceptions

Based on a survey conducted in 2000, a 2001 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office stated, "Internet users (are) more likely to be white, well-educated, and have a higher-than-average household income," adding that Internet usage rates were similar in urban and rural areas. [1]

More recent survey data by the Pew Internet and American Life Project (May, 2002) acknowledge that "growth in the Internet population" has occurred across every demographic group but that this growth has been stalled since late 2001. [2] Further analysis of the most recent data indicate that some demographic groups are under-represented among Internet users with respect to the general population:

  • Americans over 65 years old (4% of Internet users; 15% of the population)
  • Americans with household incomes under $30,000 (18%; 28%, respectively)
  • Blacks (8%; 11%, respectively)
  • Rural residents (21%, 26%, respectively)
  • No college (38%, 49%, respectively

The Benton Foundation, which has been central to the study of the divide and maintains the online Digital Divide Network resource, currently reports:

While a consensus does not exist on the extent of the divide (and whether the divide is growing or narrowing), researchers are nearly unanimous in acknowledging that some sort of divide exists at this point in time. [3]

Analysis of the trends behind Pew and Benton findings, however, has caused editorial writers from each end of the political spectrum to declare that the Digital Divide is over:

  • "It may turn out that the 'digital divide' - one of the most fashionable slogans of recent years - is largely fiction," states the Washington Post. [4]
  • "Researchers mining the data from their survey of 2000 U.S. households came across an interesting fact about the "digital divide." There isn't one. Or, at least, the divide that once was clear seems to be disappearing. [5]
  • "A digital divide separating the computer and Internet haves from the have-nots turns out to be more of a gully or a small ditch than the Grand Canyon. The political dividers will have to find another gap to exploit," states the Washington Times. [6]

The editorial writers above cite a multitude of studies that independently agree that, on the matter of Internet access alone, the effects of income, ethnicity, race, and education are diminishing. Granted, access to the Internet does not equate with effective use of information, and may indeed be the wrong "divide" to measure. [7]

Recent Pew efforts have studied Internet non-users, over half of which are intentionally offline.In February 2002, the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) stated that Internet use is increasing for people regardless of income, education, age, races, ethnicity, or gender. [8] Specifically, studies over time conducted by the Pew Internet Project have indicated that the rate of Internet use by black Americans rose from 23% in 1998 to 43% by 2001, compared to 58% by 2001 for whites, 75% for Asians, and 50% of English-speaking Hispanics. [9] Similarly, a current UCLA Center for Communication Program showed that the while 80% of American adults with college experience use the Internet, 65% of those who did not finish high school use the Internet - a gap that 5% wider a year earlier.

II. The Appalachian Ohio Digital Divide

The conclusions of the previous section are supported by analysis of existing and planned broadband Internet infrastructure buildouts in rural southeastern Ohio. A State-sponsored survey indicated that broadband Internet service is available or planned for all villages with over 500 residents and for nearly 80% of the region's residents.

Yet, the Appalachian region encompassing Ohio University should qualify as part of the Digital Divide. Appalachia spans from New York to Georgia, containing a growing population of 22 million across about 1000 miles, 400 counties, and 13 states. The region is characterized not only by its terrain but also by its poverty. In Ohio's 29 Appalachian counties, the poverty rate is 50% higher than the statewide average; eight Ohio counties near the University are considered "distressed" due to poverty or unemployment. The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the source of these statistics, was created in 1965 as part of the "War on Poverty" to fund development projects including highways and telecommunication infrastructure. [10]

Despite these circumstances, the southeastern Ohio region is surprisingly well-connected. A series of studies funded by the State recently made the following conclusions about broadband Internet infrastructure in Appalachian Ohio: [11]

  1. For corporate enterprises, connectivity is available in Appalachia. Key issues are linking companies with service providers and improving the quality of "last mile" lines.
  2. Appalachian costs are higher but only the portion related to distance. Companies pay rates based on distance charges for their data traffic from business locations to the providers' facilities. The lower rent and labor costs make these technology costs more acceptable when evaluating the total cost of doing business in Appalachia.
  3. Lagging deployment of residential broadband impacts innovation. However, if carriers invest as promised, smaller Appalachia markets will quickly catch up with more urban areas. Internet technology usage in Appalachian households and businesses lags behind statewide and national averages. Usage is the key driver for continued investment.
  4. By 2003, broadband competition will exist in 38% of Appalachian cities and towns, with both DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) and cable modem service. In 79% of Appalachian cities and towns, residents will have access to at least one form of broadband, and businesses throughout the entire 29-county region will be able to purchase T1 connections. If providers make investments as planned, we may be winning the war on infrastructure (supply) but losing the war on usage (demand).

For almost a decade, the State of Ohio has provided $600 million in special funding for network infrastructure and operations through a program known as SchoolNet to local school districts. Since enactment of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the mechanism known as E-Rate also provided over $130 million to Ohio schools and libraries. SchoolNet claims that all eligible classrooms (over 92,000) have computers and are connected to the Internet. [12]

Local libraries in Ohio are well-funded by the State and generally provide computers for access to the Internet. In addition, fines levied by public utility regulators have funded public computing sites including in this region.

The State has negotiated with SBC Communications, the largest local-exchange telephone carrier in the state, to provide T-1 data service to public entities at a flat, non-distance sensitive rate. For a flat rate of about $400/month, such entities may connect a T-1 circuit between any two points in Ohio. The State is also developing infrastructure to support wireless low-speed public-safety mobile computers.

page 2 | top  

filler image
body bottom image