WCU institute surveys WNC residents on availability, cost of Internet access

A new survey conducted by the Institute for the Economy and the Future at Western Carolina University indicates that residents of rural Western North Carolina want access to high-speed Internet access and may be willing to pay more to be able to tap into the increased capacity offered by broadband.

That is among the findings in “Broadband Survey: The Usage and Market of Internet Service in the Western Carolina University Area,” a report based on a May survey by the IEF’s Center for Digital Entrepreneurship.

The study, based on 320 responses to surveys sent to nearly 1,600 Cullowhee-area residents, was designed to determine if rural WNC is a feasible market for high-speed Internet delivery, such as broadband-over-power-lines, wireless or other emerging technologies. In the study, researchers tried to gauge current availability of high-speed technology within the survey area, affordability of the technology and customer satisfaction with existing services.

“The findings of this survey highlight the possibility that the increasing popularity of the participatory ‘Web 2.0′ experience, along with the rising expectations of Internet users, make the importance of universal broadband access akin to the importance of telephone access,” said Joe Harley , who directs technology initiatives for the IEF.

The report also reinforces the need for local, state and federal officials to increase efforts to bring high-speed Internet service to all areas of the nation, said Jose Kuhn, technology fellow for the institute.

“The United States is falling behind the rest of the developed world with respect to broadband penetration. While foreign governments subsidize their broadband development and deployment, U.S. telecommunications companies have successfully lobbied state legislatures to prevent local governments from providing broadband to the masses,” said Kuhn. “In rural America, there is a fundamental lack of competition in broadband providers. Emerging technologies, such as broadband-over-power-lines, may allow the United States to regain its competitive position.”

Among the WCU report findings:

Internet Use and Availability

Researchers say they discovered “a surprising difference” among current Internet subscribers in reasons for choosing dial-up versus high-speed service. More than half of the respondents (53 percent) stated that it was availability of access compared to only a minority (15 percent) that cited cost.

Cost of Monthly Services:

Contrary to the common perception that high-speed Internet services are more expensive, the majority (70 percent) of responding dial-up users said they actually paid almost as much as the majority (53 percent) of high speed users, with the monthly cost ranging from $10 to $30. This implies that a major barrier to broadband deployment may not be the affordability, but rather the availability, of services, said Harley.

Satisfaction with Existing Services:

More than twice as many high-speed users ranked their services as satisfactory or very satisfactory (89 percent) as compared to dial-up users (39 percent), while more than five times as many dial-up users ranked their services as very unsatisfactory (27 percent), as compared to high-speed users (5 percent).

Because of the limited size of the study area, findings of the survey cannot be interpreted to apply to all of WNC, but the results do raise questions relating to the larger geographic area, Harley said.

“How will the implications of online social networking, IP video-on-demand and other media-rich content influence the changing role of the average citizen from simply observing the technological revolution to becoming a participant?” he said. “Will we see universal access to these tools, which are increasingly important components of communication? With this in mind, the survey does provide a basic framework for a future study on a larger scale.”

The survey was conducted by the IEF’s Research, Rapid Survey and Polling Center, which concentrates on overnight polling, analysis and focused survey research and conducts long-range research projects and economic impact analyses. A regional think tank, the IEF is a research, economic development and strategic planning division of WCU that conducts economic policy analysis and applied research, and administers regional public service projects on economic and community capacity building and strategic planning.

A copy of the full report can be found at the IEF Web site: http://ief.wcu.edu/ (link no longer active).