June 2008 // Volume 46 // Number 3 // Research in Brief // 3RIB2

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Extension's Role in Bridging the Broadband Digital Divide: Focus on Supply or Demand?

Broadband access has become increasingly important in today's society. Extension educators have the potential to influence the number of households that adopt this technology, both by working with communities to increase levels of broadband infrastructure (supply) and by demonstrating the benefits of broadband access (demand). Using state-level data from Oklahoma, the study reported here demonstrates that demand-oriented projects would likely find more success because various "digital divides" exist even in areas where broadband access is available. These results agree with current academic research. Methods and successful program applications utilizing this result are suggested to Extension personnel.

Brian E. Whitacre
Assistant Professor
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, Oklahoma


The "digital divide" between technology haves and have-nots has been focused recently on broadband, or high-speed, Internet access. Research has found that some segments of the population display lower levels of residential access rates than others. Groups with historically lower levels of broadband access include rural residents, households headed by individuals with lower income or education levels, and non-Caucasians (GAO, 2006; Horrigan, 2006).

Several studies have expressed concern that households without this technology will be at a disadvantage in terms of not only economic development opportunities, but also prospects for communication and social interaction. (Warren, 2007; LaRose, Gregg, Strover, Straubhaar, & Carpenter; 2007). Further, a distinct body of research suggests that Extension outcomes can be improved by taking advantage of the Internet, for specific uses such as program evaluation (West, 2007), rapid delivery of regional pest alerts (Neufeld et al., 2007), or creating sector-specific communities to facilitate outreach efforts (Kallioranta, Vlosky, & Leavengood, 2006).

Given the rising importance of broadband access, a currently unanswered question is how Extension personnel can help to break through relevant boundaries surrounding the issue. In particular, should the focus of Extension workers be on working with communities to increase the supply of broadband infrastructure? Or should they focus on the demand side, by explaining the benefits of broadband access to individuals with historically low access rates?

This article seeks to help Extension educators interested in broadband access understand where their focus should lie. Academic research on the subject is reviewed to provide a comprehensive picture of the broadband puzzle, and current data from Oklahoma demonstrates the relative importance of supply vs. demand. Examples of successful Extension efforts in the broadband access arena are also highlighted to illustrate how such programs have been set up.


Broadband access is defined by the Federal Communications Commission as data transmissions with speeds over 200 kilobytes per second (kbps) in at least one direction, which is about 4 times as fast as a typical dial-up modem. Most broadband connections occur through Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL) provided by the phone company or over cable Internet lines provided by the cable company.

A number of studies have looked at the diffusion of Internet technology across the nation. These include the National Telecommunications and Information Association studies in 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2002, which dealt primarily with dial-up access; and the PEW Internet and American Life project, which focused specifically on broadband access in 2005, 2006, and 2007. In general, broadband access has trended up, while dial-up has become much less common (Figure 1).

However, certain groups have lagged behind others in terms of broadband access; namely households in rural areas, households with low-income or low educations levels, or non-Caucasian households (Horrigan, 2005, 2006). Advocates contend that broadband access is essential for enhanced opportunities for education, income, and social interaction (Macko, Faulkner, Hunt, Schmitz, & Szuba, 2006; Strover, 2003). Thus, increasing access rates can be an important role for Extension educators dealing with community and personal development.

Figure 1.
Residential Broadband and Dial-up Access Rates

Source: Horrigan, 2007.

Extension personnel can have an impact on broadband access rates in a number of ways. Efforts to promote infrastructure can range from informal meetings with the local cable or phone provider to applying for grants available at the state or national level. Distance Learning and Telemedicine grants are available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), with approximately 60 - 80 grants given out each year since 1993 and an average award of over $350,000. These grants, along with other publicly available funding such as Community Connect grants and loans (with awards in over 1,300 communities between 2002 and 2005), are used to provide broadband infrastructure to previously unserved areas.

Conversely, Extension educators may be able to have an impact on residential access rates by informing households about the potential benefits that broadband access offers. Programs that demonstrate online courses, e-Bay use, small business Web site development, and even relatively simple tasks like how to search for health or entertainment options online can trigger adoption. This approach is backed up by the existing academic literature, as LaRose et al. (2007) show that knowledge of desirable outcomes can be very effective in promoting broadband adoption.

In fact, the majority of academic research on this topic agrees that demand-side strategies are significantly more important than their supply-side counterparts. In particular, Pigg (2005) argues that while many communities are employing a "build it and they will come" strategy, they are not taking full advantage of opportunities that the technology provides. Instead, the focus should be on how communities can use the Internet for development opportunities--i.e., the focus should be on demand.

Similarly, Grimes (2000) argues that policies that focus solely on infrastructure are poorly thought out, and Youtie, Shapira, and Laudeman (2007) show that even when Internet access is provided for free, gaps in use still exist. Further, Whitacre and Mills (2007) show that "network effects" play a large role in explaining the rural - urban divide in broadband access, indicating that stimulating demand among households with low adoption rates will have significant spillover impacts to their neighbors and peers. These arguments imply that Extension personnel involved in community development should focus on the demand aspects of broadband access--particularly, in demonstrating the types of benefits broadband can have to both individuals and community organizations.

Case Study: Oklahoma

A survey conducted in 2006 for the state of Oklahoma asked individuals several questions about Internet access, including the type of residential connection (if any). This telephone survey was conducted by random sample, guaranteeing that each household in the state had an equal chance to be included. It was completed by 1,210 households, had an overall response rate of 27%, and is reliable to within 2.8 percentage points. Demographic characteristics such as income, age, and race were also collected, along with the ZIP code of residence.

Four distinct breakouts were created based on documented digital divides: low-income (vs. high-income), low education (vs. high education), rural (vs. urban), and non-Caucasian (vs. Caucasian). For the purposes of the study, low education was considered to be a high-school degree or less, and low income was considered to be less than $20,000 per year. Rural status was determined by using ZIP code level rural - urban continuum codes available from the USDA.

Combined with a list of areas where broadband access is available, these surveys provide information about the existence of digital divides within the state, and perhaps more interestingly, whether they appear to be demand- or supply-oriented. Data on broadband availability are taken from information on the two most common sources: cable Internet and DSL, which accounted for over 95% of all residential broadband connections in the nation in 2006 (FCC, 2006). Comprehensive listings of cable Internet and DSL providers were obtained from Warren Publishing's Cable TV Factbook (2006) and the National Exchange Carrier Association (NECA) Tariff #4 dataset (2006). Figure 1 displays the ZIP codes in Oklahoma with broadband access according to this data.

Figure 2.
DSL and Cable Internet Availability in Oklahoma, 2006

Sources: NECA Tariff # 4 dataset, Cable TV Factbook, Dynamap Mapping Software

Figure 1 indicates that while dominant metro centers such as Oklahoma City and Tulsa have high levels of infrastructure availability, various types of infrastructure are dispersed throughout the state. In particular, the very rural panhandle portion has DSL access almost throughout its entirety. Combining these results with survey data on broadband access rates can now provide an interesting look at how effective demand- or supply-side strategies may be.


T-tests were used to determine whether significant differences in broadband access rates existed between various demographic groups. Overall, the four groups that have historically displayed digital divides continued this trend in 2006 (Table 1). While there were significant differences in infrastructure availability between groups, perhaps the most striking component of this data are the broadband access rates for those households that have some type of infrastructure available to them.

Table 1.
Broadband Access Rates and Infrastructure Availability among Various Groups in Oklahoma, 2006

 Broadband Access Rates % with Infrastructure Available Broadband Access Rates When Infrastructure Is Available 
Urban0.4839 0.8730 0.5122 
Low Education (H.S. degree or less)0.2387***0.6644***0.2750***
High Education0.5879 0.7809 0.6334 
Low Income ($20,000 or less)0.1912***0.6582*0.1950***
High Income0.5023 0.7490 0.5673 
Non-Caucasian0.2978***0.7479 0.3027***
Caucasian0.4705 0.7174 0.5487 
*, **, and *** indicate statistical differences at the p = 0.10, 0.05, and 0.01 levels, respectively.

Rural areas, in particular, are thought to suffer from low levels of infrastructure availability, primarily due to the higher costs required for providers to service these areas (Strover, 2003). While the data does note this discrepancy (only 53% of rural residents have access to broadband infrastructure compared to 87% of urban residents), the gap between rural and urban areas remains at 11 percentage points even when restricted to those areas that have some type of access (40% compared to 51%).

Similar patterns hold for households with low levels of education. While the gap in broadband access here is more severe at 35 percentage points, it remains around that same level for households that have some type of broadband availability. Meanwhile, digital divides in terms of education or race actually increase when restricted to those households with access. Thus, even when supply of infrastructure is not an issue, digital divides in all four categories still exist--indicating that lagging demand is to blame.

Conclusions and Implications

The basic finding of this article is that Extension educators should focus on encouraging broadband demand among sectors with historically low adoption rates rather than spend most of their time on supply-oriented issues. Various states have developed programs of this nature and are experiencing success in raising broadband adoption, including those in Minnesota, Nebraska, and Kentucky.

Extension programs in Minnesota worked to prepare a guidebook, facilitate discussions, and document currently technology use in nine communities during 2004 (Coleman, 2004). Each community committed cash and in-kind participation in order to be selected. Further, the Extension program developed a curriculum known as "access-e," which educates individuals about the use of information technology, including the potential benefits of broadband access. Each of the nine communities was trained in this curriculum.

In Nebraska, an Extension program known as "Technology across Nebraska" involved 21 communities in information technology planning (Byers, 2006). Workshops on e-commerce and basic computer training were offered to increase familiarity to those individuals who may have not been well-versed in this type of technology. Similar versions of these programs are still ongoing in Minnesota and Nebraska.

Perhaps one of the greatest success stories in increasing broadband adoption is that of "Connect Kentucky." Started in 2003, this program sought to identify barriers to both broadband availability and use within the state. Working with both private providers and public agencies, they created a statewide map of where broadband access was available--and then set out to increase demand. This involves creating working partnerships across nine different sectors: local government, business and industry, education, health care, agriculture, tourism, libraries, and community-based organizations.

Each team, comprised mostly of individuals from the community, uses a benchmarking tool to understand where they are and where they would like to go in terms of making effective use of broadband. The results have been quite impressive, with residential broadband use increasing 73% over the period between 2003 and 2007. In fact, Kentucky's residential broadband adoption rates are now approximately 10 points higher than the national average (52 vs. 42 percent in 2006), and broadband use among Internet-connected businesses has increased to 85% (Mefford, 2007).

Extension educators working in the field of community development should be aware of the increasing importance of broadband technology in nearly all aspects of everyday life. This includes business communications, personal interactions and opportunities, and simple entertainment. While some efforts, particularly in rural communities, can be focused on supplying broadband infrastructure to a community, the more important component of broadband adoption is demand.

In particular, simply explaining what broadband access is and why people are interested in using it can be quite effective for individuals who have limited experience with the technology. Using specific, close-to-home examples of broadband success stories such as people completing a class online, earning extra money via eBay, or running an e-commerce site tend to get people thinking, "If they can do it, why not me?" In short, any method to help people understand what broadband can do for them should be encouraged.


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