Much of the discussion about economic growth and the availability of
broadband assumes there is a vast gulf between rural and urban areas.
I’ve written before about how, in some ways, trends in this century seem to be leading to something of a convergence of rural and urban areas.
I thought it especially interesting that the NTCA–The Rural Broadband
Association yesterday hosted a policy meeting in the US Capitol that was
titled: “Beyond Rural Walls: Identifying Impacts and Interdependencies
Among Rural and Urban Spaces”.
I was there for the panel
discussion, along with Professor Sharon Strover of the College of
Communication at University of Texas in Austin and Professor Charles
Fluharty of the Department of Health Management and Policy at the
University of Iowa (who is also the CEO of the Rural Policy Research
We covered the changing demographics and ambiguities
in the boundaries between urban and rural, broadband deployment and
adoption, and how to measure both the interdependencies between these
areas as well as the impact of broadband communications. Perhaps there
were too many knotty issues for one morning!
Since the NTCA will be making available further information about this, I’m now just going to highlight my own observations.
are many examples of rural communities using broadband in innovative
and intelligent ways. One example is the work of the counties in
Appalachian Kentucky, one of the poorest parts of the US.
of these communities don’t know about each other, which means that each
has to re-invent the wheel instead of learning from others’ experience
and experiments. That’s one reason ICF is planning a global virtual
summit for these communities.
The limited distribution of this
news also encourages major national/global philanthropic foundations to
give up hope for rural areas in the US. Dr. Fluharty noted that less
than five percent of philanthropy goes to American rural areas, although
twenty percent of the population lives there.
He also emphasized
that doing something about rural broadband and development is a national
issue, not something to be merely dealt with locally. He even
classified it as a national security issue because the countryside holds
so much of the country’s critical resources – our food, not the least.
problem is that for many national leaders, especially members of
Congress, the mental image of the countryside is of past decline and
abandonment. The national media reinforce that image. So they may feel
it’s a hopeless problem and/or have no idea what might be happening that
ought to be encouraged.
Many of our current national leaders also
have forgotten the common understanding of the founders of the USA that
a large country would only succeed if it was brought together. That’s
why building postal roads is one of the few specific responsibilities
given to Congress in the constitution. It’s why the Erie Canal was
built, the Land Grant colleges, etc. We seem to have forgotten what led
to our success. In this century, physical roads aren’t enough. Digital
communications are just as important.
Of course, not all public
officials are oblivious. There was a keynote by Lisa Mensah, Under
Secretary for Rural Development of the US Department of Agriculture.
Bill Johnson (Republican of Ohio’s 6th District) opened the conference
with a statement about the importance of rural broadband for urban
economies. Senator Al Franken of Minnesota closed the conference by
saying he viewed rural broadband in the same way people viewed rural
electrification decades ago – a basic necessity and common right of the
American people. Or, as he said “A no-brainer”.
Along with these
misperceptions on the part of media, national officials and foundations
is the failure to recognize the increasing integration of rural and
urban areas. The boundaries are getting fuzzy.
Even residence is
no longer clear. There are an increasing number of people – especially
knowledge workers and creative folks – who may spend 3-4 days a week in a
city and 3-4 days a week in the countryside. They may contact you, via
broadband Internet, and you won’t know which location they’re in. Are
they rural residents or urban residents or is that an increasingly
Finally, in the question-and-answer part of
the conference, one of the many operators of rural communications
companies there pointed out that they know how to deploy broadband and
run it, but that their communities need help figuring out what to do
with it. Of course, that provided me an opportunity to discuss ICF’s
accelerator program and workshops that help community leaders do exactly
© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved