On Web Access, Rural Communities Just Now Dialing Up

Rural areas’ Internet access lags behind
George Lainis
Our April 13 #discussCLT event at Lenny Boy Brewing.

I want to dig a little deeper into a Wall Street Journal story from last week that lays out how rural areas have slid beneath urban cores—what a generation ago we referred to as “inner cities”—on socioeconomic indicators such as poverty, rate of teenage births, drug addiction, and college attainment. The last #discussCLT event in April centered on the urban-rural divide, and it covered the ramifications mainly on political grounds (and some cultural ones).

But it’s important to remember that the foundation of the split is economic. In broad terms, globalization has gutted industry in rural areas; meanwhile, the market and governments have been unable or unwilling to produce an adequate alternative.

As a group, people in rural areas are getting older. Their employment and education rates are dropping, and the gap between those rates compared to urban areas is widening. “And even after adjusting for the aging population, rural areas have become markedly less healthy than America’s cities,” according to the Journal. “In 1980, they had lower rates of heart disease and cancer. By 2014, the opposite was true.” Companies, such as Amazon.com, that have opened service centers in small towns have ended up closing them because of a shortage of qualified workers—made worse by a lack of transportation options. Meanwhile, we’re only now realizing how catastrophic the financial crisis a decade ago was for property owners in the country, where land and home values didn’t recover as quickly as in the cities, or at all.

Of course there’s no quick fix to the problem, especially since one solution that’s been obvious for years has gone largely unattended: “Just two decades ago,” according to the Journal, “the onset of new technologies, in particular the internet, promised to boost the fortunes of rural areas by allowing more people to work from anywhere and freeing companies to expand and invest outside metropolitan areas. Those gains never materialized.”

Why not? Hard to say. A professor and economist at Oklahoma State University, having analyzed the effects of Internet access in rural areas, found that broadband access in rural communities has led to new businesses, higher incomes and employment rates, and higher levels of civic engagement. But the economist, Brian Whitacre, also found that access alone wasn’t enough. People had to be nudged into using it by “what might be called a ‘support system’ when they start using new technology: friends, family members, a helpful librarian or a formal class in an encouraging environment.” And support systems are easier to find in the city than the country.

Inertia’s to blame, too. In North Carolina, the state government established an office dedicated to expanding high-speed Internet throughout the state only in 2015. It took until this year for the legislature to take some action on rural Internet access; the House in April passed the BRIGHT Futures Act (Broadband, Retail, Internet of Things, Grid Power, Healthcare and Training), which would allow Internet providers to lease unused infrastructure capacity from local governments to expand their networks. The bill is pending in the Senate.

Passage would be a positive step—but only one. Internet access is not a panacea. There probably isn’t one. Regardless, the gap is growing, and the communities that need the most help have already fallen behind.


Categories: #discussclt, DiscussCLT Conversation