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For some groups, Web isn’t so worldwide

Sun., June 14, 2009

When Angela Tafoya and her boyfriend were laid off a couple months ago, they quickly found out that the job market is mostly digital these days.

“We’ve gone into a lot of stores, and they just refer us to the computer online” to apply for work, Tafoya said.

The problem is, the couple don’t have a computer at home – putting them in the company of about 38 percent of all Americans, according to new census statistics. So they spent part of last Tuesday scanning online job listings at computer terminals provided by SNAP at the Northeast Community Center.

Across from them was Martha Newman, who’d been laid off that morning and wanted to look into filing for unemployment insurance. She doesn’t have a computer, either – with two children and another on the way, she can’t afford to buy one or pay for Internet service, she said.

“I have kids; I’ve got to pay bills,” she said. “It would be very expensive for me as a single parent.”

Tafoya and Newman are part of the unconnected world, a shrinking but sizable group that doesn’t constantly check e-mail, do their banking and buying online, read blogs or goof off on Facebook.

But as more and more elements of everyday life move online, the lack of Web access also puts certain populations – the poor, rural residents, those with less education – at risk of being marginalized and left without an important tool for connecting to education and health and social services, advocates say.

“That group of people – they just become disenfranchised,” said Kristy Falco, director of the Community Voice Mail program, which provides phone numbers for the homeless to receive messages. “If we do not ensure everyone has equal access to technology, that gap between poverty and self-reliance is just going to keep getting bigger, to the point where people in poverty won’t be able to get out.”

New census figures show, unsurprisingly, that the number of Americans going online has boomed in the past decade – some 62 percent reported going online at home or elsewhere in 2007, more than triple the rate of 1997. Still, that means more than a third of people say they can’t or don’t go online. In Washington, that figure is just about a quarter of all residents, while in Idaho it’s about 42 percent – partly reflecting the fact that rural areas lag behind cities.

The so-called digital divide runs directly through the valley between the haves and the have-nots: Three-quarters of the richest fifth of the population have home Internet access; just 25 percent of the poorest fifth do. College-educated people are much more likely to go online or have Web access at home, and there is a racial divide, as well: Whites are much more likely to have the Internet at home than both blacks and Hispanics.

Recent years have opened another gap: between those who have high-speed service and those with much slower dial-up. Many government agencies and programs are trying to address the gap, and the federal stimulus bill includes $8 billion targeted at expanding broadband service.

Washington State University and the University of Washington, among scores of other public entities, are collaborating on the Communities Connect Network, an effort to make Washington a leader in “digital inclusion.” The project works to support sites that offer Internet access to underserved populations – such as agencies offering free computer time to low-income residents – as well as improving technological literacy and content.

“It’s becoming so much a part of how we live, work and play that it is a critical infrastructure in our lives,” said Monica Babine, who coordinates efforts to improve access in rural areas through the Washington State University Extension’s Center to Bridge the Digital Divide.

‘No cookie cutter’

Access in rural areas presents particular challenges. Stevens County illustrates many of the obstacles, from its population – 80 percent of its roughly 42,000 residents are rural – to its mountainous terrain.

It’s expensive for service providers to lay cable or build towers to serve so few customers, and not all of those customers want or can afford the service. The mountains present obstacles to satellite service and wireless signals.

“The majority of people, if they have anything, have dial-up,” said Amanda McKeraghan, director of Stevens County libraries.

Broadband service is dramatically faster than dial-up and is a virtual necessity for downloading and other online activities. A recent state-sponsored study of five rural Washington counties found that 72 percent of residents had access to Internet service, but just 32 percent had broadband access.

“I think we have seen growing investment and adoption of broadband services in rural areas, but we’re still lagging behind,” Babine said.

In Stevens County, 34 percent of residents had dial-up access; 23 percent had no Internet service at all. Thirty-four percent had access to high-speed cable, DSL or satellite service.

McKeraghan said several agencies and community leaders have met regularly in recent years to discuss how to improve service to residents. Now she, along with representatives for a regional economic development agency, social services hub, and WSU extension program, are examining ways they might centralize services and Web access – creating a kind of one-stop shopping where a Stevens County resident might use the library, apply for the WIC nutrition program or look into taking an online college course, all in one location.

The library system in Stevens County has nine branches; eight have high-speed Internet access, and each uses different technology to get it, from cable in Colville to satellites in another branch. McKeraghan said that illustrates one of the difficulties of expanding rural Internet access: The existing infrastructure, service providers, geography and other factors are so varied, there isn’t a single solution.

The state report that analyzed rural access recommends more state funding and support for private expansion of broadband service, including offering funding that would bolster the returns service providers would get in low-population areas.

“There’s no cookie cutter,” she said. “You can’t say, ‘Here’s what we’ll do in small towns.’ ”

Training needed

Falco, the head of the Community Voice Mail program, is looking to bring grant money and other funding to Spokane to help improve access to technology on several fronts: creating mobile computer labs with laptops, to expand the number of places that might serve people without computers; developing a network for case managers at nonprofit organizations; providing laptops to people who are coming out of homelessness; and other projects.

There are places in Spokane where people can get online for free, such as libraries or community centers, and a recent SNAP survey showed that about 70 percent of the agency’s clients had some kind of access to a computer.

But even with free terminals here and there, Falco said, there are other barriers. People who work may not be able to get to the free terminals when they’re open, and not everyone has transportation to the sites.

Marianne DeMarco, coordinator of the Northeast SNAP office, said that even when people have occasional access to a computer, it’s a big disadvantage for their kids, whose fellow students can use a computer easily and at all hours.

And then there’s something more basic: Plenty of people are simply unschooled in the ways of the Web.

“I think many of us do take for granted that everyone knows how, on a real basic level, to navigate the Internet, and that’s not really the case,” Falco said. “We see clients all day long – all day long” – who can’t.


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