State ranks in bottom half for in-home computer access

Monday, February 14th 2005, 5:33 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Only seven other states have a lower percentage of computers in the home compared to Oklahoma, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report.

Nearly 50% of Oklahomans have a home computer, and about 44% of those are connected to the Internet.

Anyone with a phone line can have access to the Internet, but much of the content on the Web is difficult to use without high-speed service.

Now, the goal for several companies is to reach Oklahoma's rural areas with broadband -- a necessary component for business, education and personal use.

Ed Hatch, computer and network technology coordinator at Moore Norman Technology Center, said the Census data send a message that Oklahoma is not ready to compete in the technological environment.

"It's going to slow technology companies down when they come in looking for a well-trained work force," Hatch said. "They see those stats and think Oklahoma is behind the curve."

While the state is below average in access to computers, the state's schools meet the national average for computer access.

Phil Applegate, executive director for instructional technology and telecommunications for the state Education Department, said there are about four students per computer in Oklahoma schools, and 98 percent of schools have Internet access.

Applegate said the national average is about 88 percent.

"Almost all of our schools are connected, and that's above the national average for schools," Applegate said. "While the state has low connectivity, the schools are high."

Applegate said it is important for students to be proficient with computer skills if they hope to pursue higher education.

In the 1990s, there was a lot of discussion about the technology gap between wealthy schools and poor schools, but now the gap exists in homes, he said.

Applegate said students have a better chance to succeed if they have access to a computer outside of the classroom.

While getting the Internet in the classroom has been successful, getting it to rural areas is challenging.

Michael Ezzell, a network engineer for Chickasaw Telecom, said providing Internet access to rural towns is cost-prohibitive.

He said since SBC owns the infrastructure to deliver broadband service, smaller telecom companies must pay to gain access. The smaller companies must then pass that expense on to the customers.

"We can deliver broadband anywhere, but they can't afford it," Ezzell said.

Ezzell said his company is interested in reaching areas that some of the big companies are not interested in serving. He claims SBC is not interested in pursuing Oklahoma's low-density areas.

"We speculate that they see it as unprofitable," Ezzell said. "The user density is not strong enough."

SBC spokesman Andy Morgan said the company makes a great effort to serve rural Oklahoma. He said the SBC's DSL service is available in 111 cities in Oklahoma, with the Oklahoma City metro area being counted as one city.

Of the 111 cities, 44 (40%) have a population of less than 3,000 and 65 (58 percent) have a population of less than 5,000.

"We have really made it a point to make it to a number of small cities and towns," Morgan said. "We believe it's a great equalizer, especially for small businesses. You can be in Rush Springs and do business with people in New York City."

Several companies have found another way: eliminating wires altogether.

WaveLinx is an Oklahoma company that provides wireless Internet service to about 19 rural communities. The company's president, Todd Segress, said they look for areas with no access or limited competition.

Segress said a wireless system is less expensive to install and more efficient. He said the problem with soliciting wireless Internet access in rural areas is that consumers mostly own desktop computers and are not interested in the portability factor that wireless provides.