Study: 'Digital Divide' Shows Need For Rural Broadband

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(photo courtesy Ball State University) (photo courtesy Ball State University)

The co-author of a Ball State University study shows the lack of access to high-quality broadband technology in rural Indiana is having an adverse effect on human development. Emily Wornell, research assistant professor at Ball State, says the digital divide appears to accentuate the inequality between rural and urban areas. 

The authors looked at factors of human development such as health, education and income. The study says there are several rural Indiana counties that are already struggling with those factors, a situation made worse with the lack of broadband access. 

The five least connected counties identified in the study are Switzerland, LaGrange, Crawford, Scott and Ohio counties. The most connected counties are Hamilton, Tippecanoe, Monroe, Boone and Porter.

In an interview with Inside INdiana Business, Wornell said having access to high-quality broadband technology is more than having Netflix and streaming movies online. She says it's difficult to interact in our society today without an online presence. 

"A lot of schools are doing educational things online. If you miss class, you can make up your class online. (With) higher education, if you're not able to actually get to a university, particularly if you're in a rural place, then there are online opportunities for a university education," said Wornell. "That's where we apply for jobs. That's where we get our news and information. That's what were we sign up for health care. That's where we get a lot of different government services. And it's not just about having the connection, but it's about having a good-quality connection."

Wornell says technology companies have made the argument that installing broadband infrastructure would not be profitable because people don't want it. "But what we find is that when the technology is available, uptake rates in rural and urban places are essentially the same. So, if it's available, people in rural places do take it." 

One of the main barriers to bringing broadband technology to rural areas is the cost of installing the infrastructure. Wornell says that also creates an opportunity for public-private partnerships to help mitigate the costs and bring the service to more people.

Wornell says it is important to look at places, such as Kentucky, where increasing rural broadband access has been successful. "Certainly, it's not going to be 100 percent transferable. What works in one state might not work in another, but at least it's a place to start. One thing we do see in Kentucky is that those counties that have had historically low rates of human development, when you include a technology index to that, when you consider the type of broadband technology and the quality of it and the access to it, their human development actually increases."

You can connect to the full report, titled "Assessing Indiana’s E-Readiness in the Development of the Digital Society: An Exploratory Study," by clicking here.

Wornell said having access to high-quality broadband technology is more than having Netflix and streaming movies online.
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