Digital Divide in Mississippi Splits Along Racial Lines, Report Finds

African Americans in Mississippi often have fewer options for high-speed Internet and spend a higher proportion of their incomes on the Internet than whites in the state, according to a new report underscoring how the digital divide splits along racial lines.

Mississippi ranks among the worst states in the nation in terms of broadband availability, and residents must choose among older, slower and less-reliable Internet technologies than people in other states, according to a report released Tuesday by the Center for Social Inclusion and the Mississippi NAACP.

"We must implement aggressive and fair broadband infrastructure policies in order to bring Mississippi into the 21st century economy," Derrick Johnson, state president of the Mississippi State Conference NAACP, said in a statement.

The report found that African Americans in Mississippi are at a particular disadvantage, partly because of where they live. Of the 10 counties in the state with the most options for Internet service providers, only one county has a majority of African Americans, according to the report. This is significant because areas of Mississippi with the greatest number of Internet service providers -- in this case, areas with a majority of whites -- tend to do better economically, the report found. There were an average of 378 businesses in areas of the state with four to seven Internet providers per zip code, compared with an average of 55 businesses in areas where there were three providers or less.

The report found that infrastructure for high-speed Internet has been concentrated in three areas: the Jackson Metro area, the northeast corridor and along the Gulf Coast. This has "set the stage for low adoption rates in the majority African-American communities of the Delta region, low-income areas and rural areas," the report said

The racial disparity in Internet access in Mississippi may be attributed to income inequalities. The median household income for African Americans in Mississippi is $24,000, a third less than whites in the state and just above the federal poverty level for a family of four. That means the average African-American family would need to spend between 1 and 6 percent of its annual income on broadband Internet, compared with whites who spend on average between 0.5 to 3 percent of their annual incomes on Internet, according to the report.

"Under these constraints, high-priced telecommunications services can place significant pressure on family budgets," the report said.

Without Internet access, African Americans in Mississippi are at a disadvantage when searching and applying for jobs, accessing health care options, applying for government services, exploring educational options and keeping up with news, the report said.

"At a time when Mississippians need jobs, better schools and health care, it is critical that Mississippi innovate local broadband deployment that is fair and helps everyone in the state get connected, including its black citizens," Maya Wiley, president of the Center for Social Inclusion, said in a statement. "The future of Mississippi is at stake."

Tuesday's report follows a 2010 study by the two groups that found Mississippi's 2nd Congressional District has both the largest population of people of color and the lowest levels of broadband access of any in the state.

Mississippi offers a unique case study for broadband Internet policy because it is both the most rural state in the nation and the state with the highest percentage of African Americans -- two populations that have been chronically underserved by high-speed Internet. Only 60 percent of households in rural America use broadband Internet service, compared with 70 percent of urban households, according to the Department of Commerce. And just over half of all Hispanics and African Americans in the nation use high-speed Internet at home, compared with about 75 percent of whites.

The report comes as the federal government ramps up its efforts to bridge the digital divide in America. The 2009 stimulus package set aside $7.2 billion to increase broadband adoption across the country. And the Federal Communications Commission recently announced plans to expand high-speed Internet access by modernizing a program that provides discounted telephone service so rural and low-income households can get broadband access.