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Drew Clark: The communication needs of rural America cannot be neglected

When it comes to rural telecommunications, the news is both good and bad. Broadband Internet services enable a revival of jobs and cultural opportunities for rural residents — but the connectivity divide between urban and rural is becoming worse
When it comes to rural telecommunications, the news is both good and bad. Broadband Internet services enable a revival of jobs and cultural opportunities for rural residents — but the connectivity divide between urban and rural is becoming worse
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AUSTIN, Texas — Cities drive many aspects of our culture and economy, but rural life remains vital to the health of our nation. To have that vitality, our nation must not abandon needs for good-quality communications in rural and urban areas.

And when it comes to rural telecommunications, the news is both good and bad. Broadband Internet services enable a revival of jobs and cultural opportunities for rural residents — but the connectivity divide between urban and rural is becoming worse.

At the annual Broadband Communities Summit here in the hill country of Texas, meeting the needs of rural areas weren't far from the surface of consciousness. A "town hall" meeting on the state of broadband in rural areas exposed a torrent of complaints about waiting for better broadband.

Although Austin is the 11th largest city in the nation, its growth has occurred primarily over the past three recent decades. One way of marketing the change has been looking at 30 years of the South by Southwest music, film and digital culture festival. When it began in 1987, Austin was a sleepy college town with an eclectic background in music that prided itself on keeping itself "weird."

SXSW is now a cultural landmark, highlighting innovations and investment like virtual reality, the startup economy, self-driving cars and robots. It's only appropriate that — at the March 2016 festival — President Obama came here to tout the promise of digital technology to enhance civic inclusion and to emphasize how what "new technologies allow us to do is to tackle big problems in new ways."

At the broadband summit last week, the director of SXSW's interactive festival said that the festival — and Austin with its multiple networks offering gigabit speeds — have come to symbolize "how better broadband creates better opportunities."

And that's true for rural regions as much as this fast-growing city. Austin isn't part of a sprawling metropolitan region like its neighbors Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. In other words, less than 20 or 30 miles out of town and you're in the realm of the telephone and electric cooperatives that are the chief source of communications and power for regions never served by investor-owned utilities.

And there are many reasons and advantages for remaining in the rural areas.

"Broadband and digital entrepreneurship can offer new freedoms for those who cherish the rural lifestyle," writes Frank Odasz, who runs Lone Eagle Consulting in Dillon, Montana, and is secretary of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.

"Keeping current in times of dramatic economic and social change requires rural citizens and rural communities to learn more effective ways to collaborate. That’s the only way to find out what works best for other rural folks like them. Rural citizens should ask whether their communities will choose to embrace their broadband opportunities before out-migration makes economic recovery unlikely."

The sponsor of the rural program at the broadband summit, the Rural Telecommunication Congress has served for more than 15 years to help drive high-quality broadband to rural parts of America. This year’s program at the Broadband Communities Conference had a simple message: Rural communities can thrive with better broadband.

This it isn't just a case of figuring out business models for building communications networks in areas of sparser density.

Statewide entities — such as state-by-state university agricultural extension organizations — are already playing a vital role in helping rural residents obtain the kind of training they need to get up to date on digital technologies.

As in Utah, state offices of economic development in recent years have frequently established a broadband office responsible for collecting and mapping data about the availability of Internet service. They remain vital, too.

The challenge, however, is a potentially exacerbating digital divide between urban and rural areas.

At an RTC panel session on the Connect America Fund, the newly revamped name for the Federal Communications Commission's program to subsidize rural communications, panelists highlighted the cost of progress.

A decade ago, good-quality broadband in urban areas was about 12 times faster than what was available in most rural areas. Now, with an increasing number of gigabit networks in urban areas from Chattanooga to Provo, the urban-rural ratio is more like 40 times. As a result, rural residents can run the applications of the last generation, but not those of the next.

At another of the rural sessions, the operator of a telecommunications cooperative highlighted the three reasons why rural regions will always remain relevant: “Food, fiber and fuel,” referring to the agriculture, clothing and energy sectors. The rural percentage of the U.S. population currently stands at 19 percent, down from 26 percent in 1986 and 22 percent in 1996.

Rural regions are growing, too, although slower than urban areas. And while the percentage of the population living in rural areas may continue to slide, we can’t let rural regions fall behind without jeopardizing our nation’s future.

Drew Clark is of counsel at the law firm of Best Best and Krieger, where he focuses on technology, media and telecommunications. Connect on Twitter @drewclark or via email at drewclark@bbklaw.com.