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The vast majority of small-businesses are computerized, but most are not cruising the information superhighway, according to a new study by the NFIB Education Foundation. While more than three of every four (77 %) small-businesses report having computers, only about 40% of all small firms are online.

The new findings, based on a Gallup poll of 1,000 members of the National Federation of Independent Business, indicate computer usage among small firms continues to grow, though at a slower pace. The number of small businesses with at least one computer increased by about two percentage points per year from 1994-1997, about half the rate of increase logged from 1990 to 1994.

The study found rates of computer ownership, online usage, and e-mail addresses vary significantly according to several factors:

* Compared to older owners, those under age 55 are more likely to have computers and be online. Rates did not vary significantly among the younger age groups.

* Compared to businesses in rural areas (less than 5,000 population), those in metropolitan areas (500,000+ population) are more likely to have computers and e-mail addresses.

* The likelihood of firms being online and having e-mail addresses increases with the number of employees.

* Fewer than one in three (31%) of the smallest firms (1-4 employees) use an online service, while 71% of firms with 20 or more employees are online.

* Only one in five (19%) of the smallest firms has an e-mail address.

NFIB Education Foundation Senior Fellow William J. Dennis, author of the study, said the survey suggests that business strategies relying on the Internet to reach the small-business audience will be no more than marginally successful, at best. "Online penetration of the market is still relatively low. And the proportion of businesses actively using the Internet as indicated by having an e-mail address is no more than a quarter of the small-business community," Dennis said.

The NFIB Education Foundation is the research and education arm of the National Federation of Independent Business, the nation's largest small business advocacy group.

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