The adoption of technology in rural Minnesota: Beyond the tipping point

I was in St. Peter, Minnesota on Thursday for a Rural Sustainability Workshop. One of the visitors to the workshop was Marnie Werner, Program Manager for the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter, MN.

The center was created in 1997 by the legislature to be a think tank and research institute on rural issues. The center does research on rural issues – education, health care, technology – and has been doing an Internet study since 2001.

The results are in for the 2006 study on Internet adoption, and Marnie came to share the results with the group.

Broadband in 2001 was still an exotic technology. The technology adoption rates in 2006: 68.7% own computers; 49% of all households have high speed internet (broadband) in Minnesota. In rural communities, computer ownership and Internet connectivity increased only slightly over last year, but Broadband adoption rose sharply – has increased 13.5% in the last year.

Age and income are a huge factor and predictor of computer ownership and broadband adoption. Older adults have the lowest rates of adoption, and low income households have the lowest rates.

Satisfaction with connection speed – broadband users are much more satisfied than dial-up users. Many more applications are using more bandwidth, making it easier to download files, view photos, etc. 3/4 of the population gets their internet access in a bundle with cable. As a result, it’s difficult to determine the actual cost of internet access.

Reasons for not adopting broadband – 40% felt it was too expensive. 35% felt they didn’t use the internet enough. 22% of rural respondents would like broadband, but it is not available.

Hours per week spent online: used to be about even between dial-up and broadband; now is a significant difference. Broadband users spend significantly more time online.

Applications: universally everyone emails. Significant difference in online shopping between dial-up and broadband, as well as with VOIP, instant messaging, downloading music, and working from home.

Impact of children in the household on broadband adoption – households with children are much more likely to have broadband than households without children.

Broadband is now at the tipping point; it’s no longer exotic. Metro areas continue to outstrip rural areas in accessibility. While availability is not the primary barrier to adoption, it is still a barrier in some parts of Minnesota. Currently the consequences of being on the wrong side of the digital divide are modest, but that is rapidly changing.

In conclusion, this will induce policymakers to look at the issue of high speed internet access, to stop looking at it as a luxury and start looking at it as an infrastructure issue like roads.

The librarians in the workshop had a lively discussion on the implications this has for libraries. For libraries, this means that it is all the more imperative to offer high-speed access to our patrons who might not have that access at home. The digital divide has huge implications for the public library, and means that the library is working to level the playing field. Patrons can use the library’s computers to search and apply for jobs. Children use the computers to do homework, many times that involve online assignments. Senior citizens will use the computers to access email.

Many of the cities represented have limited access to broadband. The libraries usually have high-speed access, but it is not unusual for the citizens to not have that access. There are still pockets of no access or very limited access. People in town might have access, but people on farms outside of town may not.

People may have a computer at home, but their computer is either older and not capable of faster applications, so they’ll use the library’s computers. Travelers have discovered the public library for email access or travel plans. Business people will stop in over lunch. People will use the library’s computers if their personal computer is broken and being fixed.

More and more often, employers are requiring that their job application be completed online. While people might have access at home, they not infrequently need assistance and look to the libraries for the technological expertise to help them. At this point, many of the libraries noted that people were coming in to do their taxes online.

When asked what patrons were using the computers for, they listed: license renewals, taxes, maps, FAFSA, boarding passes, homework, games, music, immigration appointments, training modules, online classes, eBay, car shopping, real estate shopping, job reporting, genealogy, health information, transcripts for schools, checking, travel planning, weather information, dating, job hunting, investment information, instant messaging.

No doubt the list could go on and on. It was mentioned that the immigration folks note on their website that the forms need to be filled out online, and that if you don’t have a computer at home you can use one at the public library. Newspapers are noting that libraries help close the digital divide.

Libraries offer access, basic training, and relevant content. Librarians need to keep all this in mind and bring it up, over and over if necessary, to the decision-makers in their communities and their states.

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1 Comment

Filed under Customer Service, Libraries and Librarianship, Techie stuff

One response to “The adoption of technology in rural Minnesota: Beyond the tipping point

  1. Laura Unger

    “Reasons for not adopting broadband – 40% felt it was too expensive. 35% felt they didn’t use the internet enough. 22% of rural respondents would like broadband, but it is not available.”

    I wonder if the 35% who didn’t feel they would use it enough know about all of the things you talk about in your article – from job applications to government forms. In rural areas — checking weather, crop prices…It’s a “catch 22″ — people who don’t have access can’t know the myriad of important way they could put it to use. It is true that it is becoming more of a necessity and while libraries offering people access is an important temporary solution, the US, like so many other countries, is going to have to develop public policy, as you say, to treat as an infrastructure issue, like roads. There are some good proposals for policy changes on http://www.speedmatters.org.

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