Connecting America’s rural communities to the Internet opens world of opportunities and obstacles
Jan. 25, 2010
For many Americans the home computer is command central. They download audio clips from National Public Radio and watch video clips on CNN to catch up on the day's news. They use Hulu to catch up on their favorite TV shows. Many work from home. Some take classes online. They use Skype to call friends and family overseas. They play online video games with friends down the street and around the country. They download the latest music releases from iTunes, update their Facebook status and share family photos.
Each of these online activities is possible thanks to broadband Internet access. This high-speed, always-on Internet connection makes it possible to instantly and simultaneously transmit data-rich files, such as photos, audio and video.
For the millions of Americans living in rural communities, however, the applications people living in urban and suburban areas take for granted are not available because they are confined to slower Internet access—or no access at all.
The lack of broadband available in rural communities today can be traced back to the AT&T divestiture of the early 1980s when the federal government filed an anti-trust suit against the then-monopoly. Through a settlement, AT&T agreed to spin off its regional operations into local telephone companies. While the divestiture created competition, it also meant that rural telecommunications services and infrastructure were suddenly more subject to market pressures and that meant their low-density populations would not attract the same attention from telecom providers that a highly populous and high-density city might.
Decades later, in the age of broadband, the fallout from the divestiture persists in many rural communities across the U.S.
Sharon Strover, chairwoman of the Department of Radio-TV-Film, studies broadband issues in rural areas, as well as issues surrounding telecommunications policy, access, competition, infrastructure and community impact. She also directs the Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin, which advises the public and private sectors on setting priorities and allocating telecommunication resources at the state, national and international levels.
Broadband Internet access has become a vital tool in development and social progress in recent years. In fact, broadband penetration rates are now considered key economic indicators. So it's important to examine the barriers to broadband access in the country's rural communities.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. is ranked 15th in the world in broadband access, down from first place in the mid-1990s. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 63 percent of adult Americans subscribe to broadband Internet services, whereas only 46 percent of adult Americans in rural areas subscribe to broadband.
Geography, such as mountainous terrain or remote locales, is one hurdle to delivering broadband Internet services to rural areas. Economics are another: economies of scale help Internet Service Providers (ISPs) build broadband infrastructure in urban areas where there are thousands of residential and business subscribers, but rural areas lack the population and industries that bring broadband providers to their regions, and they also typically have lower household incomes.
Stimulating Rural Broadband
In 2009, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the government set aside $7.2 billion to extend broadband Internet access in un-served and underserved areas in hopes of transforming lives through broadband Internet access. Two government entities are distributing the funds and managing this project: the Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Such a significant public investment raises questions about the impact of broadband on rural communities: Do federally funded broadband networks increase broadband adoption? What impact do broadband education campaigns have on broadband adoption? If you build it will they come?
The USDA asked Strover and researchers at the University of Kentucky and Michigan State University to examine four rural communities—Huron County, Mich., Pike County, Ky. and Zapata and Zavala Counties in South Texas—and evaluate whether broadband access "transformed" citizens' lives in any way. The team also examined how broadband services were marketed in each community and whether local leaders played a role in evangelizing the benefits of broadband Internet service.
Strover and her colleagues gathered data on Internet use in those four communities beginning in 2005. Shortly afterward USDA-funded telecommunications providers introduced wireless broadband services in each region. Strover and the team re-gathered data a few years later to see what changes occurred as a result of broadband being introduced in these communities.
In both studies, researchers measured how connected residents were to the Internet and how they used it. They examined residents' economic and educational aspirations and their level of satisfaction with their community.
"It is rare that you have the opportunity to do a longitudinal comparison of communities before and after a broadband intervention," Strover said.
If You Build It, Will They Come?
According "Closing the Rural Broadband Gap," a report resulting from the study, broadband Internet use increased in all four communities, as did plans for using broadband connections to further education through online classes or for business purposes, such as telecommuting to a job in an urban area or starting a home-based business.
Among the strongest determinants of broadband use were public education campaigns spearheaded by community leaders, emphasizing how individuals could benefit from broadband Internet access, and having an anchor institution, such as a community college, high school or library, where citizens could gain Internet access and training.
"In Pike County, there was a concerted effort among local leadership to mobilize interest and marketing around new opportunities to use broadband Internet services—even the mayor got involved," said Strover. "Those efforts paid off and are a potential model to replicate nationwide."
By the end of the study, broadband penetration in Pike County was within sampling error of the penetration level in urban Kentucky, suggesting community education efforts combined with federal infrastructure grants might succeed in closing the urban-rural broadband gap.
However, broadband Internet access also brought about some unanticipated results, including a challenge to rural communities' ability to retain their residents. The people wanting to use broadband were also the people most interested in leaving their communities.
"One of the reasons people are enthusiastic about broadband is that they expect it to bring some of the more urban amenities to their small town, therefore fulfilling some of the education and entertainment needs of young people and making their community more attractive," said Strover. "However, all four communities demonstrated a connection between broadband use, making personal connections beyond the community and intentions to relocate."
Strover's research also showed competing ISPs will enter markets when broadband access is introduced. Communities where federally funded services were rolled out saw increases in broadband penetration thanks to competing ISPs taking pre-emptive action to enter the market. This raises questions about the government's strategy for stimulating broadband deployment and how its ultimate success might be judged.
The most effective strategy for jump-starting broadband interest and drawing attention to markets that existing telecommunications providers have ignored is unclear, but Strover believes the government can play a powerful role, especially in establishing infrastructure that would reduce the costs of connectivity.
Broad-based Community Support Is Crucial
While findings showed broadband is reaching rural communities, Strover thinks government agencies aiming to connect rural America should invest in further research to establish what success looks like to the federal agency and the local community.
Strover thinks some of the government's new commitments to gathering better data on broadband access—at the census block level, the smallest geographic unit used by the U.S. Census—will yield better information about the outcomes associated with this technology. Information about the availability, penetration, speed and cost of service at this level will allow new questions about the impacts of the quality and price of service to be examined.
Her research in this area indicates building and improving broadband infrastructure are only the first steps, and that awareness and training on the capabilities of broadband Internet are equally important. Broad-based community efforts directly tying the use of broadband to specific capabilities—such as furthering education, starting a home-based business or expanding the market for an existing business—are far superior to what happens when you merely flip the switch and say "OK, we have broadband now."
According to Strover, many communities have existing infrastructure for those critical community outreach programs.
"Rural communities have a huge agricultural infrastructure with extension agents from USDA already out there in the community," Strover said. "Extension agents are in a key position to actively help small and rural businesses explore the opportunities brought about by connectivity. Agents could help businesses network with similar businesses in other communities and connect them to higher education institutions offering distance learning opportunities in their field. They can work within these communities so that they plan an infrastructure that works for their unique purposes—linking libraries, schools and non-profits, for example, with a network that is cost-efficient for users who lack a great deal of funding."
Broadband access aside, the overwhelming finding from Strover's research is that it's not about the technology; it's about people and community.
"It's very clear that adults want a future for their children at home in their own community," concluded Strover. "And they are looking to technology to provide that future."
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Beginning in February, Dr. Sharon Strover will spend six months in Washington, D.C. working with former FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, administrator of the USDA Rural Development's Rural Utilities Service, on strategies for extending broadband Internet services to rural America through the American Recovering and Reinvestment Act.