Agricultural growth is the key to rural system changes that include changes in both economic infrastructure and social conditions. The potential for rural areas to benefit from these changes is a persistent question. Information and Communication technologies are considered, among other things, as rural development indicators for any Region, linking innovation and socioeconomic cohesion. The EU emphasizes the contribution of ICTs to the economy, society and personal quality of life with the framework Digital Agenda 2010, which aims at getting more people online. Evidence from Greece shows that this policy challenge will be faced for a long time in rural areas, where more than three quarters of households still do not have Internet access.
Limited Internet penetration rates exist because of technical constraints, due to lack of infrastructure, and because of information constraints, due to lack of skills and limited perceived value of being online. The experience to date has not been encouraging, on many fronts. Contemporary limited levels of Internet use in rural Greece may be accounted for by a number of reasons found amongst users and non-users, both in terms of the demand-side and the supply-side. It seems that Internet availability will not be a problem in the future, since attempts are being made and figures show that the urban-rural divide and lack of infrastructure are dealt by national initiatives. The question raised, however, is why penetration rates remain low despite all infrastructural development in rural Greece. The answer can be only found when elaborating into demand side issues.
Today, it is well documented that the diffusion of ICTs has an influence on, and is influenced by social networking; one of the most important reasons for higher Internet penetration rates, both in rural and urban areas. Actually, social networking through sites such as Facebook, Twitter etc is not restricted only to younger users but rather to those more sophisticated and skilled. Therefore, policies must pay attention to social capital analysis and theories, which can help towards specific measures and actions. Implementing projects and initiatives aiming at the less skilled and familiar to the use of such social networking groups could increase Internet penetration.
Increasing Internet penetration in rural areas can be based on diffusion of best practices and models found elsewhere, either in other areas or other sectors of the economy. Forums and blogs for farmers, for example, have emerged in many countries run by farmers or other bodies related to agriculture. In Greece, though not so advanced, a farmer can communicate with other farmers or administrative bodies using Facebook, Twitter, through sites of newspapers, TV channels, agricultural suppliers etc. The challenge for policy makers in this case would be not merely disseminating such forums but rather to create the desire and need for the non-users to finally use services provided through the Internet. If farmers realize the added value of the Internet and social networking models to their everyday life, then there is a greater chance that they will be involved. In any case, such policies must always place a great importance in finding the most progressive audience, which means work in the field with existing networks in local communities, as well as finding and using facilitators at a local level.
Rural residents are still latecomers in using the Internet for their business. They use the Internet for finding information regarding farm techniques and educative purposes, replacing in a way farm extensions which in Greece at the time being are under restructure and reorientation. In any case, the effectiveness of Internet diffusion amongst farmers is very much still related to the rural-urban divide. Therefore, policy measures at a local level must cope to the EU future goal of “Internet for all” by finding answers in terms of actions on how to make the Internet accessible and affordable in all rural areas. Less important for the time being is the dissemination of social networks web blogs and other online groups as an information pool, since results showed that they are less appealing to farmers. It is still too early in the diffusion process to estimate the full future potential of the new ICTs and especially the Internet. Further research is needed specifically targeted on non-users in order to fully understand the situation and provide an overall future policy framework.
EU information policy to date has been influenced mainly by a strong technology dimension with an emphasis on the installation of infrastructure and necessary equipment, which is understandable in the early stages of the diffusion process. Besides, many rural areas find themselves at a disadvantage in terms of access to and the cost of sophisticated infrastructure and advanced services, a drawback that is only perceived as official figures show efforts of overcoming infrastructure inequalities. In addition, although Internet is no substitute for entrepreneurship or for well thought out strategies for development, the potential that Internet use presents, within a more enlightened policy environment, should not be underestimated. Despite the many disappointments, it would be a serious error to underestimate the potential that the Internet can contribute towards sustainable rural development within a more enlightened policy framework. No doubt a different approach is required, which appreciates the fundamentally subordinate role that the Internet must play within an integrated strategy, and much greater emphasis should be placed on enhancing human capital. Thus, the EU information policy for rural areas should be reformulated in order to focus on the social dimension, as scepticism grows about wasted resources, poorly thought out projects and false expectations.
Source: Michailidis, A., Partalidou, M., Nastis, S.A., Papadaki-Klavdianou, A., Charatsari, C., 2011. Who goes online? Evidence of internet use patterns from rural Greece. Telecommunications Policy, 35(4), pp. 333-343.