By Jon Bonné
updated 2/17/2004 7:41:31 PM ET 2004-02-18T00:41:31

Internet use among rural Americans continues to lag behind that of their urban and suburban counterparts, according to a new study. Many rural residents said they were still unable to get broadband access and often had only one Internet service provider from which to choose.

Just over half -- 52 percent -- of rural residents polled said they went online, according to research by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. That falls far behind the two-thirds of urban and suburban residents who log on. And while rural Internet use has grown in the past several years, it still lags behind.

"There's been kind of a constant gap over the last four years," said Pew research associate Peter Bell, who co-authored the new report. "The Internet doesn't seem to have diffused into the everyday life of rural users as much as it has other users."

While gaps in income and age appear to be partly responsible, the difficulty of getting Internet access remains a big barrier for many rural users. Major Internet service providers accounted for about 40 percent of use among rural residents, whose most frequent reason for choosing an ISP was that it was the only one available to them. In contrast, online users in metropolitan areas usually chose from a range of providers by seeking the best deal.

A quarter of rural users said they had no access at all to broadband connections, which may be why 80 percent of them continued to use a dial-up connection.

Seniors, who are often less likely to go online, generally account for a larger percentage of the population in rural counties -- and rural seniors were less likely to log on than those elsewhere, the Pew study found.

Income barriers
But the high poverty rate in many rural communities is one of the most serious drawbacks. Nearly half of rural households earn less than $30,000, which the Pew researchers determined to be an important threshold for Net use. While the rates of online use in rural households earning more than $30,000 about matched national averages, usage rates for poorer rural households were far below those of comparable income who lived elsewhere.

The scant access choices often result in higher monthly fees, especially in the smallest communities, said Michael Holton, director of the Rural Opportunities Program at the Center for Rural Affairs.

"It's very cost prohibitive when you have to pay 40 or 50 bucks a month per user on a dial-up," said Holton.

Even when access is available, rural users may have trouble learning how to get online and use the Internet in ways they find useful.  Larger rural communities often set up technology committees to bring Internet access into schools or local government offices, Holton said, but residents of truly small towns frequently have nowhere to learn how to use a PC.

One possible way to change that, he noted, would be public development funds like those that helped pay for rural electrification in the 1930s.

The Pew research found 50 percent of rural users who had been online less than three years had "mixed feelings" toward technology, compared to less than a third of users elsewhere. But Holton said that high-speed access could boost the economies of some rural towns as urban and suburban residents move out into the country.

Holton pointed out that his wife works for a Denver orthopedic clinic from their home in Plainview, Neb., population 1,400. "You're bringing in Denver dollars, into a small community," he said.

Newer, more casual users
Rural Net use also seems to be more casual than online usage elsewhere, according to the Pew study, which compiled the data from surveys conducted in 2002 and 2003. Fifty percent of rural users who had been online less than three years had "mixed feelings" toward technology, compared to less than a third of users elsewhere. And more rural users logged on only from somewhere besides home or work -- a library or school, for example -- than users elsewhere.

More rural users were online newcomers than those elsewhere: 20 percent had logged in for the first time less than three years in 2003, compared to 15 percent nationally.

While rural users were equally likely to use some of the most popular Internet tools, such as e-mail or search engines, they were somewhat less likely to read news online (65 percent did), make travel reservations (49 percent) or use online banking services (28 percent).

They were, however, more likely to look for religious or spiritual information online. More than one-third said they had, compared to 29 percent of suburban users and 24 percent of urban users.

The Internet also seemed to help rural residents expand their geographic boundaries. More than three-quarters said it helped them get involved in things happening outside their local community, far more than two-thirds of other users who said so.

The study had margins of error between 2 and 3 percent.

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