Vic Sowell had no internet service at his Palestine home and a laptop he barely knew how to use when it struck the East Texan that his granddaughter knew more about computers than he did.
“It was a wakeup call,” the 52-year-old retired correctional officer said of that moment earlier this year with Raina, 5, who studied computers in preschool. “There’s a whole generation of us that just got passed by.”
Thirty-one percent of Texas adults don’t have broadband — high-speed internet — at home, according to Connected Texas, a nonprofit commissioned by the state to create maps of broadband coverage. But 4 percent of Texas households lack broadband availability, the nonprofit said, showing that many who could get it choose not to do so. Both numbers are similar to the U.S. average.
“Everyone assumed if you make it available, they’ll use it,” Don Shirley, executive director of Connected Texas, said of broadband. “An individual who’s never experienced it isn’t clear how they’ll gain from it.”
In rural areas across the country, broadband adoption continues to lag behind urban areas, in part because it is less available but also because not everyone is convinced it will enrich their lives. For residents who are elderly, black or Hispanic, poor or less educated, that urban/rural gap has grown, according to a 2013 National Agricultural & Rural Development Policy Center report.
“There has been huge progress over the last 10 to 15 years in people acquiring broadband and incorporating it into aspects of their daily lives,” said Sharon Strover, one of the report’s authors and a communications professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where she directs the Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute. “As the population of non-users shrinks numerically, that set of people who are not adopting becomes the group that is really harder and harder to reach.”
Some of those who do not have broadband at home — via technology such as a cable modem, DSL or fiber — may have a slower dial-up internet connection. Those who advocate for greater broadband adoption say that only broadband allows people to access all that the internet has to offer, including movies, social media and video chatting. Strover says that mobile devices aren't always the solution, because wireless service can be slower in rural areas and because some tasks — say, creating and submitting a resume — aren't easily done on a mobile phone.
For Sowell, it wasn’t that internet access was unavailable or too expensive, but that he didn’t know how to do much besides visit eBay.
A couple of months ago, he signed up for free computer classes at a public library in tiny Buffalo, Texas, southwest of Palestine, near his daughter’s home. Since then, he’s delved into a mysterious world of copying and pasting and learned how to find instructional fly-fishing videos on YouTube.
“I still don’t know a lot, but I feel so much better now, not having to ask my son or ask my granddaughter,” he said. “Our teacher doesn’t make us feel stupid.”
His instructor, Betty Heffler, works for Houston-based Technology for All, which leads a coalition that runs 94 public computer centers in Austin, Houston, San Antonio and rural Texas.
Her supervisor, Fran Hunter, said it’s not always easy to convince people that the classes will help them, so the organization does outreach at churches.
“Let’s face it — computer access is not a sexy topic,” said Hunter, who works in Smithville in Central Texas. “Sometimes it’s difficult to get the people in that need us the most.”
But she said people regularly take advantage of the free wireless hotspot at her Main Street office, where a sign above a bench outside the front door says: “Sit on the bench and internet!”
“A couple of miles outside of town, the ability to get affordable broadband in your home is pretty well nonexistent,” Will Reed, CEO of Technology for All, said of Smithville.
Not far from Smithville’s Main Street, in a recreation center room down the hall from a bingo game, Gene Lopez attended a Technology for All class last week on how to use email.
Lopez, 62, a semi-retired registered nurse, doesn’t have internet at home, doesn’t own a computer and had never used email.
“They’re a lot of headaches,” he said of computers. “I’m afraid of people getting access to my bank accounts, my Social Security number.”
But Lopez, who works part-time for a doctor, realized recently that he needed the skills for his job, which requires him to log patient insurance information on a computer.
“I can do the nursing, but the clerical work is what’s eating my lunch,” he said.
Lopez listened as instructor Casey Dees explained how to compose and reply to messages, send attachments and keep email accounts safe while using public computers. This week, Dees’ class will focus on searching for jobs.
It’s unclear whether the Technology for All classes will continue after the organization’s federal grant runs out at the end of this year. Reed said he’s looking for foundation and corporate donors and considering collaborating with other nonprofits.
Such classes are critical, as long as they convey what the internet has to offer and not just the basics of how to use a computer, said Shirley of Connected Texas, a subsidiary of Connected Nation.
Connected Texas works with communities around the state to assess broadband access, adoption and use, and then recommends ways those communities can improve. Two years ago, it wasn’t unusual for a rural county economic development officer to tell Shirley that broadband wasn’t a priority, he said.
“Today, they’re ringing our phone off the hook,” he said. “Now, they understand if they don’t have broadband, no business is going to come there, no matter how nice the highway is.”
Over the last several years, broadband's urban/rural divide has remained largely consistent: In 2010 the “metro/nonmetro” gap was 13 percentage points, the same as it was in 2003, according to the National Agricultural & Rural Development Policy Center report.
But that gap has grown for groups with historically low levels of broadband adoption. For example, households in metropolitan areas headed by people ages 60 and older increased broadband adoption at a faster rate than those outside metro areas, leaving the rural elderly further behind, Strover and report co-authors Brian Whitacre and Roberto Gallardo explained in the Daily Yonder, a website for rural news.
“One reason we should be concerned is that increasingly, more and more government services as well as retail services are shifting to online availability,” Strover said.
Online is often the only option for applying for a job, appealing a tax bill, poring through health benefits choices or completing school assignments, leading to an even greater digital divide, Shirley said.
In East Texas, Sowell still doesn’t have internet at home. In the meantime, he and his wife rely on McDonald’s or the library.
“It’s something I will be having at home eventually,” he said. “We will definitely be on the Net.”