The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

July 29, 2012

Alabama ranks low in at-home Internet usage

Associated Press

The Montgomery Advertiser on Internet access:

Utility infrastructure once meant electricity, natural gas, water, sewers, telephone service and cable television. Now Internet access is an important part of the infrastructure, not simply for entertainment, but for a wide array of information and communications services.

That reality makes a report from the Census Bureau on Internet access of particular interest to Alabama, which has one of the nation's lowest rates of in-home Internet access. Only five states — Mississippi, New Mexico, Arkansas, Kentucky and Indiana — ranked lower than Alabama in the report.

Sixty-seven percent of Alabamians live in households with Internet access, well below the national average of 75.9 percent.

This is more than a question of convenience. Internet access is increasingly more important, all the more so in a tough economy, where many job searches are conducted and many employment applications are initiated online. For students, Internet access is often a significant element in coursework.

There are sources for Internet access outside the home, of course, but these have limitations. Students, for example, typically have access at school, but it's not available after school hours or on weekends.

Public libraries are a leading source of Internet access. Visit a Montgomery library and you're likely to see users at every screen, with others waiting their turns. However, the resources of libraries are sorely strained in these tight budgetary times, and Internet access is only a part of their mission.

Some observers point to the Internet access offered by some coffee shops, restaurants and other businesses. This is a popular service, but using it requires a laptop computer or a tablet. If you have such a device, it's great; if you don't, it's useless.

Nor are smartphones a realistic substitute for wired Internet access. They provide some access, but they aren't very practical for, say, completing an online job application.

Internet access is not a luxury anymore, and it would be foolish to regard it as such. It's an ever more critical part of the overall economy, one measurement of a state's overall infrastructure.

Alabama has made some progress in recent years with broadband initiatives aimed at expanding Internet access in areas that lacked such service. That has to remain an ongoing development priority. An in-home access rate that is 12 percent below the national average is not acceptable in a state trying to compete for jobs and better educate its children.