Little access to broadband Internet hurting rural Mississippi

Areas with access to high-speed Internet
Areas with access to high-speed Internet

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HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - They call it the digital divide. People with access to high-speed Internet are living different lives than those without it, and as time goes on, gaining advantages others can't.

According to a recent poll, 77 percent of Americans have access to the Internet, but in Mississippi, that number drops to 59 percent - the lowest in the United States, and of those numbers about a third have access to high-speed Internet.

This is an issue which concerns experts like Homer Coffman, the chief information officer at the University of Southern Mississippi.

"Everything now is becoming digital," he said. "Everything we are as Americans is in archives, it is all zeroes and ones now. The average teenager spends 31 hours a week on the Internet, so the question is the people out there in the rural areas that don't have this access, are they at a disadvantage? They are growing up differently, they are going to act differently. It is going to be an impact parents have to consider about that child's future."

It's an issue people understand all too well in rural towns like Collins, MS, where Chase McDaniel and Ben Beasley have been operating a computer business for over 13 years.

"I just had a customer this morning who said they needed high speed Internet so they can upload pictures," said Beasley. "They asked, 'Is there another way I can upload pictures to our home office?' I said, you know, today you can have dial up service which you currently have at your house, or you can get a satellite setup which is slow and expensive."

The good news is, change is coming. The Obama administration set aside $2.5 billion in funds to improve Internet access in rural areas, Mississippi was awarded $70 million in the most recent round of funding. In February, Gov. Haley Barbour and Jim Barksdale opened the Mississippi Broadband Connect Coalition to generate recommendations to improve broadband usage in various areas of the state's economy.

But most experts agree the future will not be wired.

"I actually believe the wave of the future is something based on 3-G," said McDaniel. "I believe that 3-G cellular networks will do for the Internet what cell phones did for the telephone. I would assume it is improbable for everybody to have some sort of physical line run to their house for broadband Internet access."

Homer Coffman agreed.

"Cisco predicts by 2015 every person is going to have about seven devices on their person which will connect to a network," he said. "If your way of life socially is dependant on these technologies it has to also occur out in the rural areas. I think they are going to have to play catch up to what is occurring in the rural areas."

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