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Study: 1 in 3 W.Va. homes does not have a computer

By Eric Eyre
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON — West Virginia’s push to expand high-speed Internet might be more complicated than making broadband service available by stringing copper wire or fiber on poles to people’s homes.

A new federal study shows slightly more than 35 percent of West Virginia households don’t own a computer — the second-lowest ranking of any state in the survey.

The low computer ownership numbers help explain why many West Virginians don’t sign up for high-speed Internet service, even where it’s available.

The study — called “Exploring the Digital Nation” — shows that 59 percent of West Virginia households subscribe to high-speed Internet. That’s the eighth-lowest Internet adoption rate among the 50 states, although West Virginia’s ranking has improved from past years.

“The report is clearly, in my opinion, a report on age groups and their habits as much as it is on the subject of adoption rates,” said Lee Fisher, who serves on the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council. “So in those states where an aging population, like in West Virginia, is an issue, I don’t believe you will ever have the adoption rates that people seem to shoot for until the demographic changes.”

Nationally, 70 percent of homes are hooked up to the Internet.

“Even with our improved ‘take rate’ up in the 60-percent range, we are still way behind most of the country,” said Dan O’Hanlon, chairman of the Broadband Deployment Council

The study by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration cited several reasons why people don’t sign up for Internet service: lack of interest; it’s too expensive; and they don’t have a computer.

Mississippi had 35.5 percent of homes without computers, the lowest ownership rate in the nation, followed by West Virginia’s at 35.4 percent. By contrast, 85 percent of homes have computers in Washington state, the highest percentage in the nation, according to the study.

To increase computer ownership, O’Hanlon suggested the state work with nonprofit groups, such as Mission West Virginia, that provide refurbished computers to homes that don’t have them.

“The report actually shows us there are things the Broadband Council can do to raise our rate of broadband use in West Virginia,” he said.

Frontier Communications, West Virginia’s largest broadband provider, has spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years to make high-speed Internet available across the state.

West Virginia also received a $126.3 million grant to extend high-speed fiber to public facilities, though homes and business haven’t been included in the project.

The Broadband Deployment Council distributed $2 million last year for projects designed to bring wireless Internet to homes in rural communities.

The council turned down a handful of “demand promotion” projects intended to increase the number of people who subscribe to high-speed Internet.

At the time, state law required the Broadband Deployment Council to award money for such projects in remote areas without Internet service. Council members said it didn’t make sense to spur people to sign up for broadband if the service wasn’t available.

State lawmakers have since passed a bill that allows the broadband council to distribute money for projects that increase the demand for broadband anywhere in West Virginia.

Fisher said state leaders must do more to promote the use of broadband technology “as an economic development tool.”

“Until West Virginia finds this person or group of persons to not only talk about it every day and fund it every year, I don’t think West Virginia will ever be at the top of any of these surveys,” said Fisher.

The federal report, which examined U.S. Census data, also details how and why people go online.

The report found that 34 percent of Internet users searched for jobs, while 35 percent shopped for health insurance plans. About a third of Internet users ages 25 to 44 went online for news, compared to 8 percent of users 65 and older.

The report found almost all people who used the Internet at home did so with a high-speed broadband connection. In West Virginia, 3 percent of Internet users still had dial-up connections through phones — the third-highest rate among the 50 states, according to the study.

“The data show that Americans depend on the Internet use to engage in a wide range of activities,” said Lawrence Strickling, U.S. assistant secretary of communications, in a release. “It underscores the need for us to continue our efforts to ensure all Americans have access to broadband.”

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