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Editorial: Factors combine to inhibit Internet usage in W.Va.

Jul. 17, 2013 @ 10:50 PM

In the past couple of years, West Virginia has significantly expanded the availability of broadband Internet service to homes, businesses and public institutions. The looming question now is equipping people to use that service if they wish.

The issue arises from a recent federal report showing that 35.4 percent of West Virginia households don't own a computer, the second-highest rate in the nation behind Mississippi. That proportion of homes without computers also largely explains why only about 59 percent of the state's households subscribe to high-speed Internet service, according to the study "Exploring the Digital Nation" by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Among the 50 states, that is the eighth-lowest rate.

State officials note that part of the low computer ownership rate is likely due to the Mountain State's relatively older population, with older generations generally having less desire to use computers and the Internet. Another factor undoubtedly is the relatively low household incomes in West Virginia, making it more difficult to fit a computer into the family budget.

But, as the federal report noted, availability of high-speed Internet service and its use are important for economic development overall and provides valuable tools for people as they search for jobs, explore health care options and strive to remain informed for carrying out their civic duties.

The infrastructure for broadband access has improved markedly in West Virginia in the last few years. Just this week, Frontier Communications reported that it had already met a state Public Service Commission requirement that at least 85 percent of households in the old Verizon network it purchased in 2010 have broadband access by the end of next year.

But if a large portion of households don't have computers, more broadband access won't necessarily boost the state's digital connectivity by much.

Dan O'Hanlon, chairman of the state's Broadband Deployment Council, suggests the state work with nonprofit organizations that provide refurbished computers to homes that don't have them, according to a report in the Charleston Daily Mail. He also noted that the council he heads, which recently guided a $126 million federally funded project to expand broadband availability to schools and government institutions, also now has the leeway to do more about increasing usage of the service.

Lee Fisher, who serves on the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council, also told the Daily Mail that state leaders must be more aggressive in promoting use of broadband technology as an economic development tool.

All those steps should be pursued. Meanwhile, government officials should be mindful that relatively low Internet usage in the state means traditional methods of communication remain highly important in keeping their constituents informed. That includes "snail mail" letters and notices, the print media still relied on by many people including older citizens, and outreach efforts involving face-to-face gatherings. Considering the large swath of people who are not using digital communication now, that will remain the case for a long time to come.

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