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Internet life speeding up in small-town America

They haven't caught up to their cousins in N.Y. or San Francisco, but rural Americans are increasingly using broadband.

Rural Americans are getting in the fast lane to the Internet more and more, but they still trail their city-dwelling counterparts by a sizable gap, according to new data.

Around 24 percent of rural Americans were using high-speed connections to the Internet in their homes by the end of 2005, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported Sunday. This is an improvement over the 16 percent of rural Americans with broadband connections in 2004, but below the 39 percent of urban and suburban Americans using high-speed connections at home in 2005, said John Horrigan, associate director for research at the Pew Internet Project.

The study used the Census Bureau's definition of rural, suburban and urban as the basis for the categories.

The gap in total Internet usage between rural areas and urban ones decreased in 2005 to just 8 percentage points, while the separation was 11 points last year. Rural areas tend to lag urban ones in Internet usage because there is a larger percentage of Americans over the age of 50 and incomes tend to be lower in rural areas, Horrigan said.

When it comes to broadband, the biggest problem hindering rural users is often availability. Cable and DSL (digital subscriber line) providers are hesitant to invest in the infrastructure for rural broadband, Horrigan said.

"Even if there are people with a big interest in the Internet and the means to pay for it, there are so few of them that it's hard to justify the investment," he said.