As industrialization moved forward in cities, rural communities were historically held back by lower density and relative isolation from the modern, increasingly global economy. The result has been population decline, an increasing wealth gap with urban areas, and, even in the worst situations, evidence of social pathologies such as drug use.
In theory, though, the global Internet and the increased availability of inexpensive technology should have had an even greater impact on rural areas than urban ones. For if it were really true that people can work anywhere and quality of life becomes the key factor in where they choose to live, then many people would choose to live in the countryside and not in the more metropolitan regions.
We have seen some awe-inspiring examples of rural communities that have used broadband intelligently. One is rural Nova Scotia, Canada, which was an ICF Top7 community 10 years ago for its work in its Western Valley region. Shortly after that, the province started a $75 million project to complete the deployment everywhere, called Broadband for Rural Nova Scotia (BRNS). At this point, they are within a percentage or two of having 100 percent of their residents connected to high-speed Internet.
What is especially encouraging about this project is that it has benefited decidedly low-tech businesses. There are, for instance, stories about the lobsterman’s wife who was able to sell her bait bags to the world (even for uses she hadn’t thought about), a couple that builds hammocks found their way into retail outlets in New York City, and another couple that runs a clarinet repair business on a global basis.
In rural Wyoming, a local company has put together a global learning service to teach English to thousands of students in Asia. As they describe it: “Headquartered in rural Ten Sleep, Wyoming [2010 population, 260], Eleutian Technology operates 9 teaching-centers throughout the Western United States which are open for business 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As the largest new job creator in the region, Eleutian employs over 300 U.S. Certified School Teachers. Working from local call centers [and teacher’s homes], group and private teaching sessions are broadcast via high-speed fiber optic networks and state-of-the-art video technology.” Of course, not all their locations have 260 residents. One of its bigger sites is in Cody, Wy., a town with nearly 10,000 people.
But these communities are fascinating because they are atypical examples of what might have happened all over the countryside, but hasn’t.
As President Obama and his White House Rural Council recently noted, in conjunction with the signing of the Farm Bill, there has been a consistent gap in availability of broadband between urban and rural areas. A similar gap can be found elsewhere in the world.
If the potential to create a new connected countryside is to become reality, then the tech community needs to provide leadership. Public and business CIOs, among other technically savvy individuals, are expected to provide guidance and ideas. If they don’t, the community will lack an important part of the leadership they need.
Once they become involved, technology leaders need also to be creative since solving the broadband problem in rural areas is not a simple matter. First, they need to be creative technically. The use of fiber, which has been the gold standard of broadband in cities, may just not be economical when miles of it is necessary to connect isolated homes. Fortunately there are other proven and increasingly less costly options that offer broadband capacity. These include Wi-Fi, white space, optical connections, aerostats, satellite, etc. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, a prime backer of the open network group Internet.org, has even proposed the use of drones that can stay in the air for very long periods.
Technology leaders also need to be creative financially. Chattanooga has perhaps the best gigabit broadband coverage anywhere in America, which extends well beyond the city into its more rural surrounding areas. This started out not as a broadband project, but as a smart grid project in response to the need to upgrade its electric power distribution. It quickly became clear that killing two birds with one stone and including a one gig network for both personal use and smart grid was a financially viable solution. There are similar situations in almost every community where broadband investment is part of a larger solution.
Technology leaders also need to be creative in helping people understand the applications that require broadband. It is amazing how many people have broadband available, but haven’t signed up for it. This is partly a reflection of its cost in some areas. But it also reflects the fact that neophytes on the Internet are less able than experts to identify the many ways that connectivity can help them. Moreover, the tech experts can help these neophytes to actually use broadband applications. It is not enough to tell someone, like the lobsterman’s wife in Nova Scotia, that e-commerce is a good idea. That lobsterman’s wife needs help in building the website or finding one that will do the job.
Finally, after 15 years of studying what makes for successful communities in the modern world, the Intelligent Community Forum has also noted that broadband is necessary, but not sufficient. Community vision and leadership is necessary, but not sufficient. It is the combination that will ensure a vibrant community whether in the city or the countryside.
Dr. Norman Jacknis is Senior Fellow at the Intelligent Community Forum of New York City responsible for the Rural Imperative program. In 2005, Government Technology magazine named Jacknis one of America’s “Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers.” For more information visit www.IntelligentCommunity.org.
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