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Access doesn’t necessarily mean usage

As Mississippi moves forward with ways to connect its citizens to high-speed Internet access, there is the growing realization that just because that access is available does not mean people will take advantage of it. There are issues of cost, connectivity and culture.

Mellany and Larry Kitchens, co-owners of Kitchens Unique,are two of Mississippi’s most talented and successful kitchen designers. In 2002, Mississippi Magazine’s “Sensational Spaces” edition recognized their ability when it named one of their creations as “Best Kitchen.” One of the keys to their success is a Web site filled with graphic images of their work. Fortunately, when they are at the office in downtown Madison, they can send and receive graphics-loaded e-mail to customers with ease.

Unfortunately, when they are at their home computer just a few miles outside the city limits and want to send a customer a graphics-laden proposal they face the agonizing wait afforded by dial-up Internet service. They tried satellite service, but it was high-speed in only one direction and it was expensive. They say that they can hardly wait for broadband Internet service to their home.

Travis and Nelda Rushing live in rural Copiah County. Nelda is what one would consider a micro-enterprise. Using a computerized sewing machine, she can embroider a company logo on a golf shirt or create unique quilts that sell for hundreds of dollars. Being in a rural area is tough for any small business, but the arrival of the Internet has helped minimize that disadvantage because she can communicate by email with customers worldwide. Unfortunately, she too must wait when communicating with customers who send digital photos and other graphics via e-mail. She checked with her local Internet service provider (ISP) and found that broadband was not available, but was “coming soon.”

The Kitchens and the Rushings are two examples of residents who live in areas of Mississippi where broadband Internet service is not available, except by expensive satellite service. The Kitchens’ residence is considered suburban; the Rushing residence is rural. Both families are eager for high-speed Internet to arrive because they know that it will help their businesses.

According to an October 5, 2005, Pew Internet & American Life Project report, “Digital Divisions,” two-thirds of American adults go online and one-third do not. As of May-June 2005, 68% of American adults, or about 137 million people, use the Internet, up from 63% the previous year. Thirty-two percent of American adults, or approximately 65 million people, do not use the Internet and not always by choice. Certain groups continue to lag in their Internet adoption, including Americans age 65 and older, African-Americans and those with less education.

For example:

• 26% of Americans age 65 and older go online, compared with 67% of those age 50-64, 80% of those age 30-49 and 84% of those age 18-29.

• 57% of African-Americans go online, compared with 70% of whites.

• 29% of those who have not graduated from high school have access, compared with 61% of high school graduates and 89% of college graduates.

• 60% of American adults who do not have a child living at home go online, compared with 83% of parents of minor children.

Even though things are changing rapidly, Mississippi ranks low in almost every survey of Internet use and availability of broadband telecommunications. A recent report by the Leichtman Research Group revealed that Mississippi ranked last in residential broadband in early 2006 with a rate of only 14.4 percent. That compares to a U.S. average of 35.4 percent and 48.6 percent for New Jersey, the highest rated state.

Mississippi ranks 47th in broadband telecommunications in the Progressive Policy Institute’s “2002 New Economy Index.” The report points out that there is a direct relationship between population density and income characteristics and the degree to which a state had broadband. Because Mississippi is a rural and low-income state, it had a low deployment of broadband and thus a lower ranking.

The Children’s Partnership reports that 83% of households in Mississippi earning less than $15,000 per year do not own a computer and 87% do not use the Internet at home. The “2004 Mississippi Technology Inventory Summary Report” of the Mississippi Department of Education, found that statewide 80.2% of teachers/staff have access to the Internet in their homes, while 52.3% of the students have access to the Internet in their homes.

Other states have recognized these issues and acted. Kentucky, with its ConnectKentucky program, and North Carolina, which calls its effort E-NC, have acted. It is time for Mississippi to implement a statewide initiative to encourage all citizens to use technology, especially the Internet, to improve their lives.

About Phil Hardwick

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