Only six of every 10 people in South Carolina have Internet access in their homes, ranking the state seventh from last in a nation where getting online is increasingly necessary for finding a job, staying informed and obtaining services.
"I'm kind of shocked that it's so low," said Christopher Starr, chairman of the Computer Science Department at the College of Charleston. "What are the implications for people who don't have that connection, or access to the services that connection provides?"
At the Charleston County Public Library, where free online access is offered daily, Assistant Reference Manager Misty Jones said the computers are just about always in use, and there's usually a line.
"We've seen a real increase in people filling out job applications online," Jones said. "As you know, hardly anyone accepts them on paper any more. We have people paying bills online, and setting up e-mail accounts so that they can apply for jobs."
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 67 percent of the people in the United States have Internet access at home, ranging from nearly 83 percent in New Hampshire to less than 53 percent in Mississippi. About 60 percent of South Carolinians have home Internet access.
The elderly, and those who did not graduate from high school are least likely to have access at home. White and Asian residents are more likely to have access than those who are black or Hispanic, a Census report released Wednesday said.
Ernest Andrade, the city of Charleston's director of business development and head of the high-tech-focused Digital Corridor initiative, said Internet access is important because it's a direct link to education and employment.
"One of the things the Internet has enabled people to do is to kind of level the playing field," he said. "It enables people to get information, to educate themselves, and that is the basis for improving yourself economically."
From 1997 to 2007, the number of U.S. households with Internet access more than tripled. For those with access, it's easier than ever to find a good doctor, price-shop for goods, pay bills, do research, rent a movie, find entertainment, hunt for a job, take a college class and more.
For those without, traditional methods of getting things done have in some cases become less convenient, as more businesses and the government expect people to go online to do things such as fill out job applications, or seeking unemployment compensation.
"SLED (State Law Enforcement Division) checks are a big one," Jones said. "I think a lot of employers require those background checks."
Andrade said the nation needs to develop a strategy to make high-speed connections available everywhere, just as the nation extended electricity to rural areas in the past.
"Ultimately, it comes down to economics, being able to give people the power to benefit economically from all the information that's available," he said. "To be able to share information about the skills that you have, with the rest of world, could be the path to making a good living."