The digital divide in rural Nebraska has narrowed significantly and appears to be more socio-economic than technological at this point, according to results from the 2011 Nebraska Rural Poll.
The 16th annual University of Nebraska-Lincoln poll, taken last March and April, found that 91 percent of rural Nebraskans own a cell phone, though how they use that technology varies significantly among demographic groups. Three-quarters of respondents use the Internet or email from home; 18 percent said they had no access at home.
The digital divide refers to the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas in their access to communications technologies such as cell phones and Internet. Federal and state agencies have made it a priority in the last decade to shrink that gap, in large part though technological advances.
While technology gains and public programs have helped close the gap, other factors now may be more important, said Bradley Lubben, UNL public policy specialist who's part of the Rural Poll team.
"The digital divide is more about demographics and socio-economics than it is about technology," Lubben said. That's important for policy-makers to know, he added, because it means additional efforts to bridge the divide that are based solely on technology are unlikely to close the gap further.
Of those demographic and socio-economic factors, the Rural Poll showed that generally speaking, women are more plugged into Internet and cell phone technology. Randy Cantrell, rural sociologist with the Nebraska Rural Initiative, said women in rural Nebraska tend to be better educated, more socially engaged and more frequent shoppers than men. Also, not surprisingly, younger people, more educated people and people with higher household incomes were most likely to use the Internet and use their cell phones for activities other than voice calls, according to the poll.
Rural Poll surveys were mailed to about 6,400 randomly selected households in Nebraska's 84 non-metropolitan counties. Results are based on 2,490 responses.
Rural Nebraskans have fully embraced modern communications technology as a must-have, not a luxury, Lubben said. Of the 91 percent of poll respondents who own cell phones, 30 percent use them for voice calls only, 39 percent use messaging services in addition to voice calls and 31 percent also use them to access the Internet.
As for the Internet, 80 percent of rural Nebraskans use it to research products or services; 78 percent for information related to hobbies and projects; 74 percent for health or medical information; 72 percent to purchase products; 60 percent to watch video on a video-sharing site; and 55 percent for social networking.
According to the poll, 62 percent of rural Nebraskans have positive attitudes about the Internet's usefulness in taking formal courses to further their education or careers, and 77 percent say researching health information online can help people better manage their health. However, they retain a healthy skepticism, too, with 39 percent agreeing the quality of information found online is questionable. Twenty-one percent disagreed with that statement, and 40 percent had no opinion.
Most rural Nebraskans also have positive opinions about shopping online. Sixty-five percent said the Internet is the best place to buy hard-to-find items, and 72 percent said it's convenient. As with education and health information, though, the poll found rural Nebraskans had some concerns. But Cantrell pointed out that even among frequent online shoppers, there are concerns. Sixty-four percent said they were reluctant to provide their credit card number or other information, and 65 percent said they preferred to see items before buying them.
"People are not convinced it's a good deal, there's some things they don't like about it, but they do it anyway" as the simplicity and convenience of online shopping seems to trump concerns about it, Cantrell said.
As for conducting government business online, rural Nebraskans indicated some initial reservations, but those who tried it were overwhelmingly positive. Ninety percent of those who renewed driver's licenses or auto registrations online agreed it was convenient, while 79 percent who paid taxes, fees and fines online felt similarly.
And rural Nebraskans view social networking as a good way to keep up with friends and family, to provide support to people isolated by geography or disability and to obtain information or advice. But 56 percent of respondents said they don't trust that people on social network sites are accurately representing themselves and 67 percent think online social networks have replaced face-to-face communication.
Although 18 percent indicated they don't have Internet service at home, many of those people find other ways to get online, including at work and public libraries.
The Rural Poll is the largest annual poll of rural Nebraskans' perceptions on quality of life and policy issues. This year's response rate was about 39 percent. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percent. Complete results are available online at http://cari.unl.edu/ruralpoll/report11.shtml.
The university's Center for Applied Rural Innovation conducts the poll in cooperation with the Nebraska Rural Initiative with funding from UNL Extension and the Agricultural Research Division in the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.