The Times West Virginian

July 18, 2013

Boosting state’s rate of computer ownership must remain priority

Times West Virginian

— Americans depend on the Internet to engage in a wide range of activities.

You might use it for research, studying your favorite subjects as you learn more about whatever piques your interest.

Or maybe you use it to keep in touch with family, putting to work social media platforms to stay connected across the miles.

You might even use it to log into the digital version of this very newspaper, preferring to read your news in our e-edition as opposed to the printed copy.

But in order to do all those things, you need a computer, which provides the crucial bridge from your home to the World Wide Web.

And sadly, a new federal study reveals that more than a third of West Virginians don’t have that capability. That’s because slightly more than 35 percent of West Virginia households don’t own a computer.

As West Virginia pushes to expand high-speed Internet in the state, it’s becoming clear that those efforts might be more complicated than simply making broadband service available by stringing copper wire or fiber on poles to people’s homes.

As reported by The Associated Press, 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.

West Virginia’s rank on the survey came in next to last, higher only than Mississippi, where 35.5 percent of homes don’t have computers. Compare that to the national average — 70 percent of homes are hooked up to the Internet — or the highest ranking state of them all — Washington, where a staggering 85 percent of homes have computers.

“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.”

There’s no denying West Virginia has an older population. But that doesn’t mean the state is doomed to have a low rate of computer ownership, especially since work is being done to make the state’s numbers come up.

Among the efforts:

• Some say the state should work with nonprofit groups, such as Mission West Virginia, that provide refurbished computers to homes that don’t have them.

• 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 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.

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

Considering the digital age we live in, it’s likely the percentage of homes in West Virginia that own a computer will climb as more and more people rely on the convenience it provides.

But until then, it’s good to know there are plans in place to help more people get there.