Not like air or water, food or shelter — but it’s vital, nonetheless.
Doubters of that premise should join us at the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County, which features multiple rows of Internet-connected computers for first-come, first-served use by the public. On weekends, it’s not unusual for those computers to be in continual use by residents doing online banking or shopping, using social media or checking email.
Suffice it to say that free Internet access has become one of the biggest drawing cards — other than books, of course — for the Anniston library.
That so many people use the library for their Internet access melds perfectly with new U.S. Census Bureau data about Americans’ Internet use. The headline isn’t surprising: Nearly 76 percent of U.S. households had Internet access in their homes in 2010, the Census Bureau reports. (Compare that to the 18 percent of U.S. households who were wired 15 years ago.)
However, Alabamians’ struggles to take advantage of the Internet’s growing importance haven’t waned. Sixty-seven percent of Alabama homes were wired in 2010, Census Bureau data say, but that still ranks Alabama among the 10 least-wired states and precariously close to New Mexico, which ranked at the bottom at 64.1 percent.
The intersection of socioeconomic data and Internet statistics illuminates Alabama’s high rate of residents who don’t have easy access to the Web. Census data show as incomes dip, so, too, does the rate of home Internet access. The trend is unmistakable. In 2010, less than 60 percent of homes with combined incomes of less than $50,000 were wired. Head higher up the economic scale and the numbers skyrocket: At the top — households with incomes of $150,000 and higher — more than 98 percent had Internet access.
Call it the wired world’s version of poverty and priorities.
Families who exist check-to-check may see home Internet access as a luxury they can’t afford. As more of today’s business — in education, in finance, in shopping, in government — moves online only, those same check-to-check families have no choice but to seek their Internet access where they can. (Those without laptops can’t take advantage of businesses’ free wireless connections, either.)
Thus, libraries such as Anniston’s can become people’s main link to the wired world. No reason they’re crowded.
Alabama’s past strides to bring broadband connections to schools and rural areas have made a difference. But consider the real issue here: Low-income homes are less likely to be wired, and un-wired homes are at a disadvantage in today’s world. It’s yet another reason why improving Alabamians’ lives through education and employment is so important.