August 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 4 // Tools of the Trade // 4TOT2

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Technological Issues for Improving Access to Internet Web Sites for Rural Users

Internet web site developers can improve accessibility to their sites by rural clients through awareness of technological challenges encountered by their potential market. Some rural users, especially those in impoverished areas, face problems with reliability of telephone services and dated computer technology. These technological issues can have an impact on the effective use of the web as a mechanism for data and information delivery. Web site developers can accommodate some of these limitations through simple web page design and less reliance upon relatively more advanced web programming languages such as ActiveX and JAVA.

Scott A. Samson
Assistant Extension Professor
and GIS Extension Specialist
Rural Sociology Program
University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky
Internet address:

Internet web sites are being developed with greater frequency as a means to deliver information to the mass market. A variety of tools allow easy web page creation, resulting in esthetically pleasing designs. Although the technology has simplified the fabrication of sophisticated web sites, the end user may not be able to successfully access the full technological capabilities of many of these sites, especially users in rural areas and/or users with limited computing capabilities.

Internet use in rural areas has been promoted by libraries and health professionals for delivery of information services to their rural clients (Kelly & Lauderdale, 1996; Cowan, Mayfield, Tompa, & Gasparini, 1998). In some rural areas, though, factors immediately external to Internet technology have hampered successful use of the World-Wide Web (WWW). Reliability of telephone service in many rural areas is not at the same level of support that is found with their urban counterparts. Unexpected interruptions of telephone service while connected to an Internet provider can be frustrating to a computer user, especially to one who is a novice to Internet technology. Another problem in many impoverished rural areas is the lack of, or limited access to, up -to-date computer technology such as fast modems and central processor units (CPUs).

These limitations can either reduce efficient access to sophisticated web sites or eliminate access altogether to web sites constructed with resources that are not compatible with dated computer hardware and software. To reduce the technological disparity that is becoming quickly evident in the mass market of computer users, developers of web sites for poor, rural markets can accommodate some of the limitations faced in this market with careful consideration of how the web site is designed.

There have been many recommendations suggesting that complex graphics on a web page should be avoided due to the time that it takes to download the images to the user's browser. A simple web- page layout will be displayed quickly and reduce the frustration that many users have experienced waiting for the browser to finish displaying the page. Some web sites provide the option for "text only" display, which suppresses the writing of graphics to the web browser and decreases the time that it takes to download a page to the web browser. Unless the graphics are important to the web page, the user should be given this option for "text only."

Along with consideration of the type and quantity of graphics included on a web page, web site developers should also be cognizant of the limitations of software and hardware of the user. For example, while Microsoft's Windows 95 and NT have been around for many years as the principal operating system found on academic and business personal computers, there are still a number of users in the public sector that are using Windows 3.1 or Windows for Workgroups, operating systems that pre-date Windows 95 and Windows NT. The implications of these differences in operating systems is evident when one considers the relatively new programming techniques available to web site developers, such as ActiveX and JAVA applets.

ActiveX and JAVA applets are programs that are downloaded automatically to a user's web browser when the user connects to a web site. The principle behind ActiveX and JAVA is to enhance the user interface of the web page beyond the capabilities of HTML (HyperText Markup Language), the standard web browser language that has limited programming capabilities. ActiveX and JAVA programs can process input from the user before sending a set of commands back across the Internet to the web site. While the approaches taken with ActiveX and JAVA are programmatically superior to HTML, they should be developed with concern for the capabilities of the computers belonging to the end user.

ActiveX is a development from Microsoft. It can be used only with Windows 95 or NT operating systems and not with Windows 3.1, Windows for Workgroups, Apple computers or any computer running under an operating system other than Windows 95 or NT (Plewe, 1997). JAVA was developed as a programming language that would be transparent to the variety of computer operating systems found today.

Because there are several developers of JAVA, there are some incompatibilities from one version to the next. However, it is relatively more compatible with most operating systems when compared to ActiveX. The user, though, must have a relatively new version of a web browser that supports JAVA applets. In addition, if the JAVA applet is large, it can take a considerable amount of time (greater than 2 minutes) to download to the user's browser. Over time, as users upgrade their software and hardware, more computers will efficiently support JAVA. In the interim, web site developers should refrain from JAVA until language standards are established and more Internet users are running web browsers that are JAVA-compatible.

In light of the potential reliability problems of telephone service and the lag in maintaining current software and hardware on computers in low-income, rural areas, web site developers should design their web sites around a "thin-client, heavy- server" model. A "client" refers to the computer of a user of the Internet, while a "server" is a computer at a web site serving several clients, or users.

"Thin-client" refers to the minimizing of the resources of the user's computer to process information sent from the web site. HTML is the web programming language used on thin-client computers. A "heavy-server" receives commands from a client and performs the computer operations on the computer at the web site. Depending on the nature of the commands sent to the server and the subsequent operations performed by the server, the demand upon the server could be heavy if there are several concurrent users. However, the "thin-client, heavy-server" configuration is the most efficient for a rural client base. Limited demand is placed on the user's computer system as well as the telephone lines.

In summary, web site developers for low-income, rural clientele should consider the limitation of rural telephone systems and dated computer software and hardware systems of the user. While this means that web site developers cannot take advantage of programming techniques that enhance the aesthetic appeal and functionality of a web page, the web site will be more accessible to users working with a variety of computer operating systems as well as with limited computer capabilities.


Cowan, D.D., Mayfield, C.I., Tompa, F.W., and Gasparini, W. (1998). New role for community networks. Communications of the ACM, 41, (4), 61-63.

Kelly, M. J. and Lauderdale, M. L. (1996). The Internet: opportunities for rural outreach, exchange and resource development. Human Services in the Rural Environment, 19, (4), 4.

Plewe, B. (1997). GIS Online: Information retrieval, mapping, and the Internet. Santa Fe, NM: Onword Press.