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Mississippi ranks last in Internet usage
[April 04, 2010]

Mississippi ranks last in Internet usage

Apr 04, 2010 (The Sun Herald - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- The Internet allows people to participate in the modern economy.

Or just stay connected with family and friends. It's a quality-of-life issue for most Americans.

But what if you couldn't even get Web access? What if you didn't know how to use it? For a large part of Mississippi, those aren't "what ifs." The governor's office estimates 1.18 million Mississippians don't have the option of high-speed Internet for their homes. The New YorkaEUR"based Center for Social Inclusion calls that being separated from the 21st century.

And an annual population survey in 2009 by the Census Bureau found only 55 percent of Mississippians use the Internet, whether at home, at work, at school or elsewhere.

That's low. The lowest in the country. The next lowest is Alabama, and it's five percentage points higher than Mississippi.

States that are really wired, like Alaska and New Hampshire, sport Internet usage numbers like 79 percent and 76 percent. Those are states where 83 percent and 85 percent of the people live in a house with Internet access. In Mississippi, that number is only 57 percent.

Access only part of picture The national survey also shows the better educated the population, the more the Internet use.

Only 26 percent of those who have less than a high school education go online, compared with 90 percent with a bachelor's degree or better.

In 2008, only 17 percent of Mississippians, 25 and older, had a bachelor's degree.

"Those with a higher level of education are more likely to use the Internet not only because they have the skills, but also because the Internet culture in colleges and graduate schools substantially influences their life and work style," said Guangqing Chi, assistant professor of sociology at Mississippi State University. "They need Internet for communication, information collection, social networking, shopping, entertainment and many other purposes." That statistic goes hand-in-hand with another.

"It may not be a big deal to pay for Internet service with an income of $52,029, the median household income in the U.S. in 2008," Chi said. "But it would be more difficult with an income of $37,818, the median household income in 2008 in Mississippi." Even with that, access is a crucial issue.

The two most common ways to get a broadband connection is a television cable or DSL from a telephone line.

Gov. Haley Barbour's new Broadband Initiative is now estimating only about 35 percent of the state has access, compared with 51 percent of homes nationwide.

Mississippi is now part of a stimulus grant designed to nail down these figures. The goal is to have a program where any business or homeowner can provide an address and see what Internet services are available.

In all, the stimulus package has earmarked $7.2 billion for expanding access to broadband in the United States. Recipients in each state are being announced weekly throughout 2010.

But Mississippi also needs encouragement to use the Internet, Barbour said.

"Building community awareness and creating public computing centers is just as important," he states on the state stimulus Web site, but making it available is essential to education, health care and jobs.

A recent study of the Delta as one of the poorest regions of the country demonstrates the strategic and social importance of Internet access if an area is going to grow and thrive, according to the Center for Social Inclusion.

How important is it? Chris Campbell, director of the school of mass communication and journalism at USM, said, "We're in a state that's on the wrong side of the digital vibe, and that's an issue," he said, especially given that so much of communication these days is done online.

"If it's not going to get to half the homes in Mississippi, that's a problem," Campbell said. "It represents a pretty serious issue for the state." Brian Reithel is a former dean of the business school at the University of Mississippi and now a professor of management information systems.

He lived only a few miles outside Oxford, but for years had no access to DSL or broadband.

"It's underlying technology," Reithel said. "There are some factors beyond sociology, though sociology plays into home location choice, whether one chooses to live in the city or in the country." Mississippi's population is spread out. There are lots of small towns. The closer one is to a city center, usually the better the Internet options.

That's one reason Alaska ranks so high in home Internet access -- so much of that state's population lives in the cities.

But in Mississippi, living less than 15 miles from a university, Reithel used a satellite Internet link that had limitations.

"I lived with it, and I'm a techno junkie," he said. "We were thankful six years ago that cable finally reached us." Now there's an effort in Oxford to obtain a Google grant that would supply a fiber-optic connection -- an Internet superhighway -- to every home in Oxford.

"That's pretty exciting," he said.

The Jackson-George Regional Library System in South Mississippi recently installed that same technology at all but one of its eight branches.

Rex Bridges, a spokesman for the Pascagoula Branch, said the library system went from a T-1 connection to a Metro-E fiber-optic connection that is 13 times faster.

People who use the library computers typically don't have Internet at home, Bridges said. The faster speed is great for downloading and streaming video and music, educational training and on-line courses. Video gamers can avoid lag time.

But even on the Coast, he said, there places the Internet simply is not available. At least one branch serves a community that has pockets with no Internet access, he said.

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