Can Broadband Save Rural America?

By Rick Schadelbauer


No doubt about it—rural America is shrinking. Over the course of the past century, as our economy has evolved from primarily agrarian to manufacturing to high-tech, the percentage of Americans living in rural areas (generally defined as areas with population densities of less than 1,000 people per square mile, and towns and villages with populations less than 2,500) has steadily fallen. According to the 1900 census, 60% of all Americans lived in rural areas. By 1950, that percentage had fallen to 36%. And by 2000, only 21% of the nation’s population was considered rural.

If this migration from rural America is to be slowed or reversed, the key will undoubtedly be jobs. In today’s information economy, many jobs can be done from virtually anywhere—as long as the worker has access to state-of-the-art broadband services. Absent the availability of high-quality broadband, however, rural America will not be able to leverage its estimable strengths to lure companies and workers.

Toward that end, two major initiatives have recently been taken that could dramatically hasten broadband deployment in rural areas. The first is $7.2 billion in funding made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) for loans and grants to qualified broadband infrastructure projects, with the specific goal of expanding broadband access to unserved and underserved communities throughout the United States. The second is the FCC’s recently unveiled national broadband plan, which sets as a goal ubiquitous broadband deployment by 2020. Together, these two initiatives have the potential to dramatically affect broadband deployment in—and, consequently, the economic future of—rural America.

Years Away From Extinction?

Often, the best and brightest rural students go off to college in urban areas, and never return. In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas wrote that "by the 21st century the shortage of young people [in rural America] has reached a tipping point, and its consequences are more severe than ever before. Simply put, many small towns are mere years away from extinction, while others limp along in a weakened and disabled state."

Carr and Kefalas addressed the problem in detail in their book "Hollowing Out the Middle," and propose a number of potential solutions for slowing, if not reversing, the rural exodus. These include offering aggressive tuition breaks for medical students who commit to return to rural areas after graduation, embracing immigrants in rural areas and focusing curricula at the local community college level on skills and knowledge—such as computer technology, green energy and sustainable agriculture—that will better serve those rural students who are likely to remain after graduating.

The availability of high-quality communications technologies also is key. Widespread broadband availability not only plays a significant role in the solution to the problem of people leaving rural areas, but it also would benefit current rural residents. As Carr recently told Newsweek, "You don’t have to build amenities just to lure people. You should be building amenities for everybody. Having digital infrastructure and having abundant opportunities for leisure should be something for the commonweal."

Good News

On a positive note, today’s young people don’t seem to be taking the brain drain as a foregone conclusion. According to the Foundation for Rural Service’s "2009 Rural Youth Telecommunications Survey," 60% of respondents indicated that they would consider living in a rural area after graduation, while only 13% ruled out the possibility altogether. Tellingly, however, 45% said that the availability of a variety of telecommunications services would be an important factor in determining where they will eventually live. Asked what they considered "essential" telecommunications services, 66% of survey respondents chose broadband Internet, second only to the 82% of survey respondents who cited cellular telephone service.