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Age, income hamper rural use of Internet

ST. PAUL -- Fewer people own computers and use the Internet in rural Minnesota than in the Twin Cities, but that gap is narrowing, a new study finds.

ST. PAUL -- Fewer people own computers and use the Internet in rural Minnesota than in the Twin Cities, but that gap is narrowing, a new study finds.

Age and income are the leading factors behind less high-speed Internet use in rural parts of the state, but service availability also is a problem, Jack Gellar told legislators Friday.

Gellar, president of the Center for Rural Policy and Development, released findings from his group's statewide Internet use study during a presentation before a Minnesota House committee handling telecommunications issues.

There are only modest problems for those Minnesotans not able to access the Internet or do so with updated technology, Geller said.

"But increasingly ... the consequences of being on the wrong side of the digital divide will become more significant," he warned, citing the Internet as a budding source for commerce and public records.

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According to the St. Peter-based center's 2006 research:

E 64 percent of rural Minnesotans own a computer, compared to 71 percent of Twin Cities residents.

E 57 percent of rural residents use the Internet, compared to 67 percent in the Twin Cities.

E 37 percent of rural residents have high-speed Internet connections, compared to 57 percent in the Twin Cities.

Those differences are largely because rural Minnesota has an older population that may not be computer-savvy and a larger percentage of lower-income residents who can't afford the technology, the study shows.

"Age will take care of itself; income will not," said Gellar, whose agency provides information to the Legislature but generally doesn't make policy recommendations.

The biggest Internet-related disparity between Twin Cities residents and rural Minnesotans involves use of broadband connectivity. That technology allows for faster Internet access than traditional telephone connections, but isn't available in all areas of the state.

Demand for broadband service is growing because some popular Internet applications, such as downloading music and movies to home computers, only work well with high-speed connections.

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The center's statistics were collected through random telephone surveys with 1,500 people across the state.

The study found that some people don't use a high-speed Internet connection because they don't know one is available where they live.

The Legislature could consider requesting the state compile a broadband Internet provider list for counties or regions, Rep. Al Juhnke said. The Willmar DFLer said there are legislators who don't even know about broadband options at home.

Such a list could be compiled, but doing so would be difficult, Gellar said.

Broadband availability is an economic development concern, Rep. Brita Sailer said. Companies in rural Minnesota increasingly need high-speed Internet capability to conduct business.

"It's not somebody just playing games anymore, or e-mailing pictures of the grandkids," said Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, who serves on the House panel that heard Gellar's report.

Sailer said she used a telephone connection to access the Internet at home until last year. She wondered if more can be done to encourage telecommunications companies to offer better service to people living along "the last mile" of a company's coverage area.

Many parts of Minnesota are served by at least one broadband Internet provider, especially cities and towns, Gellar said.

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However, he added, "If you live outside the municipal boundaries, it gets a lot dicier."

Scott Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.

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