The Internet: A Recession Lifeline

What are people turning to during these hard economic times, besides a pint of ice cream? The Internet.

A recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 69 percent of all Americans are using the Internet to cope with the recession, scout for jobs, take online classes, search for government benefits and learn investment tips.

It's no surprise that a Americans are taking advantage of the Web to survive the recession. We at Free Press have long been saying that a high-speed Internet connection is essential for the health of our economy, and is a necessity for everyone in the digital age.

With millions of Americans still struggling without a broadband connection, this study offers further proof that wiring the entire country with fast, affordable, open Internet is a national priority.

But don't take my word for it. Here's a story from our vault about a B&B owner struggling to run her business without a broadband connection:

Rural B&B Could Perish Without Broadband

Martha Abraham is devoted to her Web site, tending to it the way others spend hours in their gardens coaxing flowers. She knows that to make it in the bed-and-breakfast world, she has to have a flashy site that sets her business apart.

But Martha doesn't spend hours at her computer for the joy of editing her site. High-speed Internet is not available in her area - 30 minutes from Asheville - and dial-up Internet and even her recently acquired satellite connection make building a business with an online presence tedious, time-consuming and expensive.

Martha Abraham: "Business is difficult without broadband."

"I found out real quick that I had just as good a chance of getting a reservation than the guy who had been in the business for 20 years as long as I had a good Web site," Martha says. "But it was very difficult to do when I realized that I was limited to dial-up. In the beginning, I didn't know the difference between dial-up or DSL or whatever you computer people call them, but I knew the difference between fast and slow."

Satellite Internet has been marketed as the high-speed answer to people living in places where the phone and cable companies refuse to bring broadband. Yet installation and monthly fees are often very expensive, and the satellite connection can be unreliable.

"On some days, [satellite] is not any better than dial-up, and you don't know when it's going to be working and when it's not," Martha says. "Rainstorms, it's down. Snow, it's down. Wind, it's down."

Competitive Disadvantage

Even though Martha is doing all of the right things to market her B&B, the lack of dependable broadband puts her at a competitive disadvantage. As the economy falters, Martha's reservation book is looking empty. Today, there are no guests, and for several weeks, the phone didn't ring at all. And Martha fears that not having broadband puts her business at greater risk.

An almost obligatory question for travelers these days is, "Do you have Internet?" Even romance-seeking couples want to tow their laptops. Martha's reply: "'Yes, I have it, and if we're lucky it will work when you get here.' It's definitely a deal-breaker."

Another deal-breaker: slow online reservation pages. "If [people] don't find you right there, ready to roll, they move on to somebody else," Martha says. "If that satellite and that online booking isn't working, and they can't continue with pushing a few keys, they will definitely go to somebody else. And being as small as we are, we can't afford to lose a single customer."

Martha's cheery, worry-free nature disappears as she thinks about what's at stake. "We went into this business for all the right reasons," she says somberly. "We've worked really hard on our product. But it's like giving a party and nobody coming. It's hurting our pocketbooks. We're baby boomers. We thought we did everything right for our retirement. This was a great stage to go into do something really worthy in a beautiful part of the country. But we certainly didn't do it to fail at it."

Yet Martha's tenacity may be no match for a situation beyond her control - the decision by Internet service providers to bypass her community.

"You've got very sophisticated people with very sophisticated businesses that are living in the mountains," she says. "And we need to be served just like everybody else. There's no difference except for the hill that's in the way."

Read other stories about people living on the wrong side of the digital divide in rural and urban America.

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