Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Virtually left in the dust

I grew up in Llano, California. A small town on the northeastern edge of Los Angeles County. As of today, its population is just under 1200. Until my last year of high school, we did have access to cable or satellite television. Our internet was dial-up. 56K. Remember that? Talk about frustrating. Frankly, you're just happy to get your e-mail, but doing internet research? Forget about. In this new "paperless age," information is the currency, and rural areas don't have it.

A recent NY Times article, Downloads are Slow in Idaho, shows that I’m not alone in my internet frustrations. The article starts out by explaining how bears single-pawedly took down a town's internet. Obviously these aren't problems in urban communities, but bears (and other exclusively rural features) aside, the article hints at some important factors about information access.

While a rural Idaho town has the slowest internet speeds, Idaho also has the highest disparity between speeds. Meaning, you can have fast internet if you're willing to pay for it. So where does that leave the rural poor?

But the internet isn't the only place to get information. Right? Surely other resources exist. Well, they do, but not in rural communities. When the urban person has a question for an agency like the DMV or wants to apply for Food Stamps, they can call, go to the office, or go online. For the rural person a trip into town isn't so easy. That call might be long distance. And their internet? Forget about it.

Large urban centers have more options for information gathering--be they large libraries, community centers, or the agency itself. In the rural town, the information on job postings, grant applications, and access to government programs is fragmented and incomplete. You might think that the internet would fix that. And it can, but, as the article points out, only if you're willing to pay.

The disparity between rural and metro speeds in Idaho is symbolic of the disparity between access to information for the two groups. When we combine that fact with the poverty rates in these areas it is of no surprise that most of the 28% of homes without internet access are mostly rural--these people are virtually left in the dust.


Jason said...

Not only are rural area left in the dust when it comes to technology and information, but they're often behind the entire race. There was no decent internet connection where I grew up during my high school years. Dial up was the only thing available and it was hit and miss then. When I got to college I was badly lacking in internet skills and computer skills in general as I rarely used a computer in high school. It took some effort on my part to catch up with others in my class. U

JT said...

This brings to mind the internet commercials with two tortoises still using slow dial-up connections, while the rest of the world is zipping past them on high-speech connections. So much for slow and steady winning the race.

As your article points out, the slow internet connections might also have an increased cost in places like Idaho because rural areas are spatially more spread out than condensed, urban areas. While increasing broadband and access points might be a possible solution, and the end of the day, there is more distance between households in rural areas. One access point might provide internet to three or four households or businesses, whereas in urban areas, the same access point or broadband is accessible by ten or eleven.

Patricija said...

When your internet slow, it takes you longer to do everything. It also limits you from opportunities. So many of today's resources are online.

For example, I remember all the things I did to get into college. I researched schools, application tips, and how to fill out my FAFSA. I then also actually applied for multiple colleges, filled out my FAFSA, found and applied to scholarships, secured my housing, booked my flight and bought my books.

And that isn't even a complete list! For those with no or slow internet, this would take forever and for some things such as scholarships, they'd probably be close to impossible.

Therefore, being disadvantaged with access to fast broadband leads to being disadvantaged with access to higher education.

KB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KB said...

I discussed this topic with my mom the other day because she still lives in my small hometown. She has had numerous problems concerning the speed and reliability of her internet service. When I asked her how this affected her life, she said what is most frustrating about the situation is the fact that she did not feel as though she could take an online class. She wanted to take an online library science class from a community college, but due to how unreliable and slow her internet was, she decided it would not work out.

As Patricija said, internet connectivity problems can put those who live in rural areas at a disadvantage regarding higher education. Internet problems in rural areas not only affect a student’s application to college, it can negatively affect those who get into college and want to pursue a degree online. If the internet is too slow or unreliable, students may miss deadlines, online tests, and important communications with teachers. These problems may force some students to give up on an online education.

For some, an online degree may be the only option if the nearest college is far away and work and family responsibilities compel the student to stay in the rural area. The broadband and connectivity issues in rural America are limiting who can advance their education via the internet.