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W&L Survey Examines Internet Use in Rockbridge County

Household Internet connections in the Rockbridge area exceed the national average, but residents’ use of the latest online tools is unexpectedly low, according to a recent survey by a Washington and Lee University researcher.

The survey by Claudette Artwick, associate professor of journalism and mass communications at W&L, was developed with students in her course on research methods, in anticipation of the arrival of high-speed broadband service to the region.

“We thought this would be a great opportunity to conduct a baseline survey to find out the state of Internet use in the area at this point in time, before they install broadband,” said Artwick. “Several years down the line, we’ll take another survey to measure change over time.

The survey was sent in May 2011 to 2,500 randomly-selected households and 505 residents responded. “That’s a pretty good response rate,” said Artwick. “We sent a paper questionnaire to be sure we covered everybody, not just those who had Internet service. We also gave people the option to respond online.”

Artwick cited a number of the more notable findings:

• 80 percent of households connected

The survey found that 80 percent of households are connected to the Internet, which is higher than the national average of 71 percent. Artwick said that although the finding is unusually high for a rural area, she attributes this to the number of retirees, residents who telecommute, semi-retired people who still work and individuals connected to one of the area’s three universities.

People in the area spend an average of two and a half hours online per day. Artwick said she expected to hear that most of that time was spent online at work. But that was not the case. “Nearly three quarters of the Internet users said that they spend most of that time online at home,” said Artwick.

The survey also found that half of respondents use the Internet at work, with 20 percent accessing the Internet at a public library or someone else’s home and 15 percent using their cell phones or smart phones to log on.

• 11 percent of respondents have never used the Internet

While 81 percent of residents have used the Internet for five years or more, 11 percent of respondents had never used the Internet. “People reported that they did not have Internet access at home because of cost and not owning a computer,” said Artwick.

“As one might guess, about a third of people in this area connect to the Internet using DSL (digital subscriber lines),” she continued. “But what was surprising, and this is where I see a real connection with our high speed broadband project, is that 10 percent of people in this area still use dial-up access, which is double the national average of five percent. Residents indicated that they don’t have enough choices since nearly half of respondents said they are not satisfied with the number of Internet providers in the area and nearly a third expressed dissatisfaction with the cost of service,” she said.

• Use of latest tools unexpectedly low

About 40 percent of those respondents who are online indicated that they use e-mail only once a day and never use Facebook. In addition, only seven percent of respondents use Twitter. “These are two of the most common social media tools on the Internet, so that surprised me,” said Artwick.

Although Artwick said she expected a lot of people to be watching movies online, 80 percent of respondents said they never watch movies on paid websites like Netflix. “I don’t know if that has to do with the speed of their Internet connection or not,” she said.

Sixty percent of respondents who are online said they do shop online. “The most active shopper in the survey purchased something online 125 times per year, compared to the average of 21 times per year,” said Artwick. And one-third of residents play games online.

• One-third of respondents name traditional newspapers as their main source for news

Residents in the survey named hard copy newspapers as their main source for news (33 percent) followed by TV news (28 percent), online news (14 percent), and a family member or friend (11 percent).

“Again, that’s surprising, and much different from the national average,” said Artwick. “What we’re seeing nationwide is that television and online are almost equal in usage, whereas hard copy newspapers are on the way down. But it’s different in this area. I don’t know what explains that, but maybe people are referring to their local newspaper.”

Artwick hopes to conduct a future survey to measure how area primary and secondary teachers use the Internet in the classroom. “I think it would be very good to have that information and see how it changes over the years,” she said. Her survey was supported by a W&L Lenfest Grant as well as a grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, which is also supporting similar research at the University of Missouri.

The complete findings of the survey can be found at http://rockbridgeinternet.blogspot.com/

The survey comes on the heels of the $6.9 million federal grant in 2010 to the Rockbridge Area Network Authority (RANA) to bring high-speed broadband to the area, one of 94 Recovery Act investments in broadband projects nationwide.

The arrival of high-speed broadband to the area will increase competition and give residents higher speeds at lower prices, according to David Saacke, chief technology officer at Washington and Lee and co-chair of RANA.

A central part of the project is construction of a new shared data center at Washington and Lee, for which the university has provided $2.5 million. “The design of the data center is completed and construction should begin in a few weeks,” said Saacke. “We hope it will be completed by this June. We’re also starting the bidding process for laying the fiber optic cable, but it could take two or three years for all the spokes to be laid throughout the county.”

The groundbreaking for the new Richard A. Peterson Center, which is named after W&L’s late chief technology director, will be held on Feb. 6 at 2 p.m.

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Sarah Tschiggfrie
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