MIRC community results show higher than average rural broadband adoption

Bernadine JoselynThis week the Daily Yonder’s series on broadband focuses on adoption in rural areas. They point out the rural adoption rates are not catching up with urban cohorts…

Rates of residential broadband adoption have grown considerably between 2003 and 2010.  Overall adoption rates have more than tripled from around 20% in 2003 to over 65% in 2010.  Interestingly, the overall “digital divide” between rural and urban households (technically designated as metro vs. nonmetro below) has remained consistent over this period at around 13 percentage points.

This is disheartening and diving into their statistics paints and even gloomier picture because the numbers confirm that households that could possibly benefit the most from broadband are least likely to have it. Older folks, folks with lower incomes and folks with less education are the least likely to have adopted broadband.

The good news is that the Blandin Foundation has had success working with communities in rural area to increase broadband adoption with the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) project. Over 18 months, the we worked with 11 Demonstration Communities (DCs) to increase broadband adoption. The MIRC final report outlines the adoption improvements…

Over the 18 months under comparison, all of the DCs grew their rate of broadband adoption at an average rate of 12%, compared with a rural Minnesota statewide average of 10.3% for the same period. In both 2010 and 2012, all of the DCs scored well in broadband compared with national rates of adoption in comparable rural areas. Average penetration in the DCs in 2012 was 67.1%, however, which was still 5% below the rural statewide average of 70.6%.

A more recent report by Robert Bell notes that broadband adoption is just one area where MIRC communities saw improvement…

Over the 18‐month period, the Demonstration Communities posted a 9.4% average improvement in their scores, ranging from a high of 16% to a low of 4% positive change.

Robert Bell worked with the communities to measure their “Intelligence” based on the Intelligent Community Forum criteria. The scores refer to above and are based on rating in the following categories. It takes adoption a step further and move communities up a later to greater vitality overall.

average change

Regular readers will recognize the MIRC story but I thought it might be helpful to borrow from the final report to outline some of the lessons the MIRC communities learned in the process in the hope that it might help close the rural-urban gap…

Communities know best.

Involve citizens directly in articulating their community’s broadband adoption and utilization goals to catalyze the long-term engagement needed to increase adoption.

Local leadership matters.

Help local broadband champions get and use skills to frame issues, build and sustain relationships, and mobilize people to build a community’s capacity to achieve its broadband goals. Train community leaders to use participatory facilitation skills. Effective meeting facilitation can make a big difference in keeping folks coming back to the planning and implementation table.

Broadband is not an end in itself.

Broadband is a means to the bigger picture of increased economic vitality and improved quality of life.

Outreach works.

Change follows relationship lines. Effective recruitment strategies for technologically-challenged small businesses and for historically marginalized populations are intra-community, hyper-local, high-touch, and personalized.

Peers make great teachers.

Peer-based learning formats that encourage local businesses to share practices, questions, and experiments are a popular, low-cost, and easily sustainable tool to build a community’s technological savvy.

Cross-community communication is key.

Signage, local media support, and online social media are effective, low-cost ways to spur and sustain energy and excitement for community projects.

Engage tomorrow’s leaders today.

Recognize and authentically engage the talents of young people. This next generation of leaders brings energy and sustainability to any community initiative. Youth can serve as co-trainers, technology mentors, and partners in computer refurbishment projects. They can also use their video and other social media skills to promote their communities.

Connect the economic dots.

Framing broadband use as a necessary ingredient in the whole-picture approach to community vitality can help communities see and leverage the connection between technology and benefits to community life. This framework can also help community leaders see how workforce, infrastructure, inclusivity, innovation, and marketing/advocacy are mutually interdependent aspects of community vitality.

Have patience.

The work takes time. Look for and celebrate early and easy wins along the way, but think about the long term and build capacity and energy for the long haul. Money and other resources follow vision and commitment.

2 thoughts on “MIRC community results show higher than average rural broadband adoption

  1. Bernadine, Nice take on this article. It was a thought provoking article. However, I think that rural is doing considerably better now than the article’s premise. In 2003, the 13% gap was actually meant that the urban take rate was over twice the rural take rate (23% – 10%) or the rural rate was 43% of the urban rate. In 2010, the gap is still 13%, but the take rates are 70% and 57%, respectively. Now the rural rate is 81% of the urban rate. That is a big improvement!

    According to Connect MN, Minnesota take rates are 71% in rural and 78% statewide. I did not see an urban take rate in the report infographic, but I am willing to bet that Minnesota gap is less than 13% in real terms. The Foundation’s consistent work on this critical issue are should get lots of credit as well as the excellent broadband coverage is some parts of rural Minnesota especially our cooperative telephone companies push to FTTH.

  2. What I have seen in my own experience is that the broadband adoption “problem” is a trailing indicator, rather than a leading indicator. In other words, when affordable broadband at usable bandwidth becomes available in rural areas, broadband adoption will rise, and rise pretty quickly.

    Unfortunately, the incumbents have shrewdly and successfully reversed cause and effect, saying, basically, that there is no bandwidth problem, only a broadband adoption problem. This relieves them of the responsibility to upgrade their rural facilities and/or provide better pricing options.

    This notion that if only we trained people better they would suddenly use more broadband is appealing because it relieves elected and appointed officials of any responsibility to do anything.

    And I have sat in many many meetings with incumbents who quite openly espouse the idea that their customers are the problem….. I find this appallingly condescending, especially of rural and inner city communities, because one way of distilling the “broadband adoption is the problem” argument is “….our customers are too stupid to use broadband, so we have to train them.”

    I realize this is overly simplistic, and I am not at all suggesting that training and education programs, done right, are important and useful.

    But I have seen the effects of taking people into a computer lab, showing them all the neat stuff they can do online (e.g. Skype video, streaming video, etc.) and then the enormous frustration when they go home and discover that their current “little broadband” connection won’t support those activities.

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