Broadband for rural economies

The Daily Yonder ran on interesting article this week interviewing some folks in the know about broadband and rural economic development. Specifically they spoke with the following people:

  • Shane Greenstein, Northwestern University;
  • Ken Flamm, University of Texas at Austin;
  • Amy Glasmeier, Department of Urban Studies and Planning Department Head, MIT;
  • Bill Lehr, with the MIT Research Program on Internet & Telecoms Convergence; and
  • Moderator Sharon Strover, director of the Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute and the University of Texas

A tenet through the discussion is whether broadband availability will boost economic development in rural areas. The answer is that it may slightly – but the roadblocks right now (for 95% of the country) is not availability; it’s cost and inability of lack of interest in using broadband.

Most economic decisions depend on a multitude of factors, and broadband is but one of many.

Other key determinants of a region’s economy include its resource endowments (e.g., being naturally beautiful, endowed with minerals or forest, etc.), the quality of its labor force (e.g., well-educated, etc.), the specialization of its existing businesses (e.g., ranching, agriculture, tourism, etc., which has been determined over decades), and other facts, such as the nature of the vehicle traffic in the area (e.g., near a major highway or not).

The presence or absence of broadband cannot change those factors, and cannot massively change long-term economic trends established over decades (e.g., prevalence of entrepreneurship, loyalty to a region or out-migration of youth, the ability of a regional economy to generate revenue through exporting to other parts of the country).

It’s kind of depressing. But I wonder if broadband with training might make a difference. I’m thinking about the Blandin Foundation’s MIRC (Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities) Initiative, where we are bringing, training and project grants to local communities to bolster education and experience with broadband. Can we demonstrate success with broadband in a local community that becomes the bedrock for more success? I think we can and we’ve seen glimpses of it as MIRC projects get off the ground.

In Winona, recent immigrants are learning computer and digital literacy skills – and it’s helping them integrate and making their lives easier. In Redwood Falls and Nobles and Jackson Counties, local businesses are learning how to implement digital marketing strategies. In Benton County, older residents are going online with kiosk-type computers that also help families remotely monitor healthcare issues. In Stevens County broadband is helping speech therapists see students remotely so that they spend more time in therapy and less time on the road.

Each community has unique strengths and challenges but by working to build success based on those local ingredients, we set success and create an interest that might help change some of the factors mentioned above. Maybe we can’t move a lake or forest – but we can build on the quality of workforce and specialization of existing businesses.

2 thoughts on “Broadband for rural economies

  1. The jist of the panel rings true, but perhaps oversimplified for the account. Yes, we must be very careful not to promise a Utopian vision from our modest investments in rural broadband.

    However, it’s a circular argument. They say firms that need broadband avoid those areas without it (duh!) so will not take it up when we get it to them. Well, yes, broadband, like electricity and clean running water, is one of those things you don’t miss if you have never had it. But once you’ve tasted 10MB broadband you’ll never go back to dialup again. It’s not about the wires, but how you use them, whether we’re talking about 3-phase power or wi-fi.

    So, no, you don’t need broadband. You don’t need paved streets or brick houses, either. Unless, of course, you want to live in a 21st century economy.

  2. Well put. I also think that the workers/owners/clients of the businesses without broadband today will eventually be replaced by broadband users. Maybe we need to quit looking for the benefits of broadband and look at the consequences of not getting it.

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