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'Digital divide' hits close to home, report shows

BY CHELSEA BOULRISSE and SHARON BARDONNER - sbardonner@ftimes.com

Recent data from the Purdue Center for Regional Development (PCRD) illustrates a “digital divide” within Indiana counties, bringing to light the gap between those who have a reliable internet connection and those who don’t.

According to PRDC, Indiana currently ranks 34th nationally in internet connectivity, with up to 18 percent of Hoosiers lacking access to a quality internet connection. The PRDC’s Digital Divide Index shows Clinton County with a “Digital Divide” score of 45.37; the lower the score, the less the divide, meaning that while the gap between those who are connected and those who are not is smaller than it may be in other Indiana counties, there is still some work to be done.

Data from the index further elaborates on the county’s connection gap, reporting that on average about 31.7 percent of the population in Clinton County is without broadband access with at least a 25 mbps download speed and a 3 mbps upload speed, which is identified as the national “standard” for broadband speed.

By comparison, two adjacent counties, Carroll and Tipton, have connection gaps of 52.3 percent and 24.8 percent, respectively, and Montgomery County has a gap similar to Clinton’s of 31.7 percent.

Marion County’s gap is a low 3.1 percent, more than half of Hamilton County’s still enviable 6.4 percent, said the study.

The largest gaps were identified in rural counties. The main obstacle for these rural areas is population density. While in more urban areas one mile of cable can connect several houses, it may only connect a handful in a rural area, making it less cost-effective for internet providers.

Once a luxury and a foreign concept for those in older generations, internet access has since become as much of a necessity as water, electricity and natural gas, according to some economists. Having a solid broadband connection is a top priority for prospective businesses, without whom a region will lack jobs.

But the importance of a reliable internet connection goes beyond business, according to Roberto Gallardo, assistant director of PRDC. In a domestic sense, many procedures like paying bills or applying for health insurance have moved to an online platform. As a result, those who seek out such services are often expected to do so online.

“If (people) do not have full access to the web, (they) are probably missing out on important educational and employment opportunities, as well as the ability to seek out information on health, finances and more,” Gallardo explained in the announcement. “Today, being without high-speed internet access is as great of a disadvantage as not being able to read and write would have been 100 years ago.”

Using the digital divide data, PRDC estimates that Clinton County is missing out on $13.77 million in economic benefits over 15 years. That’s how much additional economic benefit the county would see if 20 percent of those households currently without access were given it and subscribed to the service.

PRDC hopes its digital divide index will spark discussion at all levels of government to find a solution.