The Top Ten Reasons to Invest In Rural Telecommunications – advice from 1996

Thanks to Mark Erickson for sharing the following tip sheet from 1996. The citation is at the bottom – it looks like the creators are no longer around so I hope they don’t mind me sharing it.

It’s also a reminder that many of us have been at this a long time. You hear about RS Fiber and if you’re new to broadband development it can feel like an overnight sensation – but here’s Mark, the RS Fiber Champion, with collateral on broadband from 21 years ago!

The Top Ten Reasons to Invest In Rural Telecommunications

(And a Handful of Pitfalls to Watch Out For)

Here’s a quick reference list of the basic and established reasons for supporting rural telecommunications investment. When you’re on the lookout for ways to attract interest and participation, remember these points — and be prepared to discuss the downside, too.

  1. Telecommunications resources can help diversify rural economies, open regional and global markets, and create economic opportunities.

Just as improved roads and better schools create an environment for economic growth and well-being, a vital and diverse telecommunications infrastructure — one that provides cost-effective access to telephone, data, and Internet resources — is a critical component of a healthy rural economy.

  1. Telecommunications can make rural companies or organizations more efficient and more competitive.

An expanded telecommunications infrastructure can make rural businesses more economically competitive by opening global markets, by attracting jobs and skills from crowded, expensive urban areas, and by making business information and tools more universally available. With appropriate use of telecomm resources, rural no longer has to mean isolated.

  1. Telecommunications resources can help reduce the impact of vanishing or seasonal jobs.

Telecommunications can help soften the blows from consolidation and cutbacks in farming, mining, and ranching industries, and help smooth the peaks and valleys of tourism’s on- and off-season cycles. Telecomm-based industries can grow skilled, high-paying jobs that are better for the local economy, the workforce, and the environment. Other rural industries — such as farming, manufacturing, and retail — can become more profitable, and thus more economically healthy, through the effective use of telecomm resources.

  1. Telecommunications-based industries are typically cleaner and safer — for their workers, the community, and the environment.

As rural economies seek to shift from an exclusively agricultural and extractive (timber, mining, etc.) base, they are attracted to “open-collar” businesses that don’t contribute to local pollution, traffic, or health risks. Telecommuting workers don’t clog rural highways; software development companies don’t gobble natural resources; mail order fulfillment service centers don’t leak contaminants into the water supply.

  1. Telecommunications resources can leverage a rural area’s best features into competitive advantages in the challenge to attract new businesses.

Rural areas have a whole range of advantages in attracting new or relocating businesses — everything from lower costs for property, taxes, and wages, to a more stable workforce, to a higher quality of life. Putting telecomm resources on the negotiating table counters any business concerns about isolation (the “boondock factor”) and makes rural areas that much more competitive. (It’s also worth noting that telecomm-dependent businesses are frequently led by decision-makers who value these quality of life factors highly.)

In fact, as more and more rural areas get connected, telecomm resources become a competitive requirement, not a luxury or simply a “good idea.” It’s increasingly likely that your region simply won’t attract significant new businesses without them.

  1. Telecommunications resources protect the future.

The Internet and other telecomm-based resources expand the social, educational, and intellectual options for young people, making migration to urban/suburban areas less compelling. By bringing the world to your town or region, you make it less necessary for them to travel or relocate. Under-20 residents are probably the most proficient at using telecomm resources, and more likely to use them, as well; if you build it, the young people will be the first to come.

  1. Telecommunication resources help build a more informed citizenry and more efficient and responsive local governments.

Using computer-based discussions, distance education, and telecom-supported research, rural citizens can become more knowledgeable about local and global issues that directly effect them. Locally- or regionally-distributed technologies such as GIS and data modelling can be used to effectively inform public debate and decision. Local and regional governments can use telecomm to improve their access to state and federal governments, to enhance interdepartmental and interagency communications and cooperation, and to provide their services more efficiently to their customers — the tax-paying, voting public.

  1. Investment in rural telecommunications assets has a significant ripple effect.

Improvements to information infrastructure not only support the business and commercial sectors; they also make possible improvements to other rural assets, such as the educational system, regional government, libraries, local media outlets, and health care services. Once the “data plumbing” is in place, all manner of uses become possible — including some that haven’t been invented yet.

  1. Cyberspace needs the influence and perspective of rural participants.

In many respects, the (largely urban) online population can learn valuable lessons in how to be a community from its rural counterpart, which hasn’t yet lost the knack. Getting more electronic villages online will help the digital world develop in balanced, reasonable, and realistic ways. This is especially true of the Internet, which is about as grass-roots as it can get; without rural participation, those roots take hold in Silicon Valley, New York, Japan, and other concrete canyons. For example, the data bandwidth available in rural areas is typically less than that of urban centers; without a substantial rural constituency (in other words, a viable market), the developers of telecomm tools and technologies will make false assumptions about how much bandwidth is the “norm,” and the rural users can find themselves left behind by new developments.

  1. Telecommunications can improve the quality of rural life.

By providing educational resources, cultural access, and opportunities for social interaction, the various forms of telecommunication (particularly local BBS’s, the Internet, and the World Wide Web) can reduce the isolation of the wide open spaces — at the convenience of the user. When telecomm services are available and cost-effective, rural residents can become participants, instead of viewers; contributors, instead of consumers; global neighbors, instead of anonymous and unheard locals.

And Some Reasons to Think Twice. . .

And, if you’re concerned about the downside, consider these potential risks of rural telecommunications and investment therein:

Many rural areas currently lack the investment capital and skilled human resources needed to plan and implement new telecommunications strategies. This means you’ll probably need outside help (the ever-present consultants!) and have to listen to new voices.

Some efforts will work, and some trial projects will fail; don’t be too impatient with these new technologies and their new users. Resist the temptation to roll out government Web pages and regional telemedicine and commercial EDI and online education all at once; don’t bite off more than your neighbors can chew. Target concrete, achievable objectives at first.

Economic growth is a two-edged sword; just as traffic grows to fill every expanded highway, new development attracted by telecomm options can strain the planning and zoning resources of a rural region unused to the pressure.

Importing urban skills means importing urban expectations and urban problems. In addition to dealing with the problems themselves — everything from increased crime and social issues to pressures for higher levels of government services — these changes can create further friction between long-time and new residents. (In western Colorado, county officials are preparing to publish and distribute to newcomers a Code of the West document that reminds them of the realities of mountain living — things like wildlife encounters, weather impacts, and the rural approach to timeliness and pace of living.)

The economic terrain of connecting over great distances and among low density rural populations is treacherous. Leading players like telephone companies (particularly the Regional Bell Operating Companies, or RBOCs) are reluctant to extend advanced connectivity or services to low-density (and inaccessible) rural areas, where capitalization costs are high and the potential for competitive return on investment is low.

Server chasing — the aggressive pursuit of relocating technology-based businesses — has many of the same dangers as its older cousin, smokestack chasing; it also may require “betting the farm” (sometimes literally) on untried players in a highly volatile game. Technologies and their developers come and go almost as fast as restaurants, with a speed unlike the older, heavier industries. When a rural area commits to support a particular business, it may be betting on the core technology of that business, as well.

Most rural areas cannot afford to make large, continuous and innovative investments in new telecommunications systems and services every few years. Telecommunications technology is a highly volatile playing field; it’s extremely difficult to predict the longevity of infrastructure and applications.

Bringing the Internet to your community also means bringing to the computers of your young people all the content and censorship issues that you’ve heard about. You can’t just plug in the schools and walk away.

Government agencies are often less adept at implementing new technologies — particularly those which provide citizen access and input — than their business and commercial counterparts. An elected champion and committed staff create the best chances for significant government use of telecomm applications.

The current cost/value determinants of building a telemediated society may create greater disparity between urban and rural communities, between the information haves and have nots.

The online world — whether it’s the Internet, a commercial service such as AOL or Compuserve, or a local BBS — is different. Be prepared to help your constituency deal with the adjustment. There may be a rural, anti-technology, back-to-basics backlash to the increasing technological imposition upon society.

The Investment Guide and the Applied Rural Telecommunications Project (AERIE) are sponsored by the Colorado Advanced Technology Institute (CATI) and the Economic Development Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Revised: 2/2/96

This entry was posted in 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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