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Rural Internet use on the rise

By Erica Hill
CNN Headline News

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(CNN) -- More rural Americans are surfing through cyberspace than ever before. Fifty-two percent of rural adults were connected in 2003, up from 41 percent in 2000.

Despite the growth, rural users still lag more than 10 percentage points behind their urban and suburban counterparts, according to the latest report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, "Rural Areas and the Internet."

Why the gap? First, it's typically easier to get online in urban and suburban communities, and users have more choices when it comes to accessing the Internet. Other factors include lower income levels and the fact that rural users are often older.

Within the group of rural users, the division continues, often for the same reasons. The survey found 54 percent of rural white Americans access the Internet, versus 31 percent of rural African-Americans, a disparity Pew Project traces to differences in income and education.

But don't count rural Internet users out. Despite initial reservations by many, rural Internet users are typically hooked once they start surfing, and once they are online, there aren't many differences between them and urban or suburban users.

"When it comes to using e-mail, employing search engines, visiting government Web sites, and pursuing hobbies, they are just as likely as everyone else to perform some of the most popular activities online," said Peter Bell, Pew Internet Project Research Associate and principal author of the new report.

"Many of their differences can be explained by the fact that the Internet hasn't diffused into everyday life in rural areas at quite the same clip as it has in others locales."

While rural users tend to shy away from online transactions -- such as shopping, banking and booking travel -- they are more likely to access religious or spiritual information.

Rural users are also more likely to expand their reach -- 77 percent say the Internet is more useful for becoming involved in things outside their local community, compared to 66 percent of suburban users, and 64 percent of urban users.

The majority of the analysis from the "Rural Areas and the Internet" report came from random phone surveys conducted between March and August 2003.

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