What does rural really mean? And how does it impact broadband?

The Minnesota State Demographic Office recently released a new report that redefined rural. It turns urban, suburban, rural into urban, large town, small town, and rural—based on both population size and proximity to other communities. The report draws a picture of what each community looks like and what they are likely to look like in the future.

Here are some quick differences in populations today:

  • More than 7 in 10 Minnesotans lives in an urban area, yet 434,000+ live in (remote) rural areas
  • 89% of all immigrants residing in Minnesota live in urban communities
  • 32% of urban Minnesotans are age 50 or above, that rate rises to 38% of large town residents, 41% of small town residents, and 44% of rural Minnesotans
  • Urban workers’ median earnings, for men and women, are $10,000 higher than all other geography type (Won’t even go into male/female divide on earnings)

And here are some observation and predictions on changes:

  • Rural populations are shrinking
  • Urban populations are growing
  • Urban population growth in MN has been due exclusively to international migration
  • Deaths outpace births in rural areas
  • Migration will drive growth in Minnesota counties

And here’s a map of geographic areas (yellow is rural) compared to areas with broadband as defined by 25 Mbps down and 3 up – red means less than 50 percent have broadband.

You can see some similarities in the maps.  The Twin Cities has broadband access, Duluth has access, Moorhead has access. Much of the area around Roseau is unserved and rural or small town. There’s a swath of East Central Minnesota that’s rural or small town and largely unserved. But there are some areas that don’t correlate. Cook County (NE Minnesota) is rural – but they have broadband. Western Minnesota is rural (Lac qui Parle County) and they have broadband. So rural broadband is possible! People are doing it. Looking closer at the conditions at play can inform legislators as they make choices shaping public investments in broadband infrastructure.  Cook County has benefitted from active local leadership and $43 million in federal ARRA funding; Lac qui Parle has benefitted from partnerships with community-minded telephone cooperatives. (LQP is served by Federated – but there are several coops in MN including Paul Bunyan, Hiawatha Broadband, CTC and Garden Valley Telephone.)

The Demographic report outlines ways that broadband can be essential – especially for rural areas…

It is essential to plan for the needs of this population [over 65], as rural and small town residents are more remote from health care providers and specialists, and due to low population density these areas may face steep challenges to delivering needed services. Employing technological tools and improving coverage and speed of broadband to deliver telemedicine and meet other needs—by conquering distances without being physically present—will be especially valuable. Community leaders should consider how to improve social connections for older adults, many of whom live alone, as strengthened social networks can serve as a bulwark against isolation and related health and mental health concerns.  Great examples of this exist in MN – Redwood Area Hospitals example.

Broadband can help attract new residents as well.

broadband-to-helpI’ve written before about broadband as a lure for the rural “brain gain” – a population segment that communities generally like to attract. Folks in the 30-40s who are interested in moving to a rural area, often with children or intention of children. Having broadband makes it easier for brain gainers to work online and therefore work anywhere, which is often what one or two partners do.

workers-in-chisholmA few years ago the Blandin Foundation had students from University of Minnesota Morris talk about what they look for in a new community – or what would they look for as soon as they graduated. One biggie – broadband. They want to live where they can get online.

Finally the demographics report indicates that growth in urban areas comes down to international migration. If rural areas want to grow, one strategy is to mconnect-with-scotlandake a concerted effort to reach new Americans. Presumably however, new Americans have friends and family in different parts of the world. I think access to broadband as a tool to stay in touch with folks back home would be a priority for choosing a community. When I was in my 20s I lived in Europe for several years. Back then access to a phone from my apartment was a big draw – and not an assumed amenity. My friends, who were often natives of the country, weren’t as concerned with a phone but I was. In the same way, I think other immigrants would be as well.

It will be interesting to see if the demographics maps don’t start looking more like the broadband access maps if people move to areas with better access.

It’s valuable to be able to look at the demographics report. I think it can help communities plan for the future they want to achieve. So I was surprised to learn that earlier this month federal legislation (HR482 and S103) was introduced that would limit funds to such demographic detail…

SEC. 3. PROHIBITION ON USE OF FEDERAL FUNDS. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no Federal funds may be used to design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing.

This entry was posted in MN, Policy, Research, Rural by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

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