Thomas Friedman recommends building up rural America with broadband via VP Harris

Thomas Friedman has some advice for the Biden Administration to maximize Harris’ skills to the benefit of rural American but focusing on better broadband…

Harris is too smart and energetic to be just the vice president, a position with few official responsibilities. I’d love to see President-elect Joe Biden give her a more important job: his de facto secretary of rural development, in charge of closing the opportunity gap, the connectivity gap, the learning gap, the start-up gap — and the anger and alienation gap — between rural America and the rest of the country.

It could lift of rural areas and build relationships with rural areas…

“I fear the word ‘rural’ connotes a geography that is not my problem,” Beth Ford, president of Land O’Lakes, the influential farmer-owned cooperative headquartered in Minnesota, said to me. But, in fact, spreading connectivity and technology to rural America “is an American issue, an American competitiveness issue and an American national security issue,” she argued.

Persistent “underinvestment in rural America will leave us less secure and less prosperous as a nation” — and less competitive with China, which is rapidly connecting its rural heartland, Ford said. “Some 35 percent of farmers lack enough bandwidth to run the equipment on their farms, ensure their kids get a good education and that Grandma has access to telemedicine.”

What should a Biden-Harris rural strategy look like? It would start with showing up regularly. “Showing up” and “just listening to people” with respect goes a long way in rural America, Duluth’s mayor, Emily Larson, remarked to me. Actually, nothing earns more respect than listening to people respectfully.

He has a plan that includes cooperatives…

On policy specifics, the Biden-Harris team should commit that in four years every rural community in America will have access to broadband — the basic infrastructure needed for an inclusive modern economy.

Dunne suggests a new federal loan program that would offer 50-year, no-interest loans to communities and co-ops (and ease regulations) so rural public-private coalitions can build broadband networks with a minimum 100 megabits per second of speed for downloading and uploading all kinds of remote learning tools, work tools and telehealth tools. Representative James Clyburn has already won passage of a bill in the House with a similar approach.

And a visit to Red Wing MN last year reminded Friedman that technology is more that infrastructure, it’s about the skills to use it too…

Traveling with Dunne last year to Red Wing, Minn., to see how gigabit networks can support high-tech start-ups and traditional farmers, I wrote about a couple of inventors we met who had created a robotic rooster that patrols the poultry house for dead birds and tills the bedding, but with an unexpected byproduct: The birds exercise more and gain weight faster, because they are constantly running away from or pecking at the robot.

While these “Poultry Patrol” robots work autonomously 80 percent of the time, said Dunne, “there are significant periods when they need to be remotely operated and receive coding updates from afar, which is only possible with very fast broadband.”

But while better connectivity is necessary, it’s not sufficient. “We also need to ensure investment in digital skills training in rural communities and incentives for tech companies to hire remote workers in small towns,” added Dunne. “Today rural America represents 15 percent of the nation’s work force, but only 5 percent of digital economy jobs of the future. But the pandemic has opened people’s eyes to the idea that digital economy jobs can be created anywhere.”

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His time in Willmar shows too…

In Minnesota, small towns like Willmar that can manage inclusion and diversity are the ones now thriving, because they can attract new labor and home buyers when so many of the young white adults have left for the big cities.

Harris will soon be the first woman, the first Black and the first Indian-American vice president, which certainly resonates with a lot of urban voters. However, if she could make herself the person in the Biden cabinet who always shows up FIRST to listen in rural America and the FIRST to appreciate its concerns and the FIRST to make sure its concerns are addressed, she and the Democrats could make themselves competitive in a lot more rural counties.

This entry was posted in economic development, MN, Policy by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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