Can Broadband Save Rural America?

Clearly, young people don’t have an aversion to rural America per se. What tends to lure them away are the opportunities to be found in the cities that simply don’t exist in rural areas. Bringing some of those opportunities to rural areas—while maintaining the unique qualities of rural living—will play an important role in slowing, if not fully stemming, the tide of rural youth moving to the cities.

The Rural Advantage

Proponents of rural America have long cited the numerous advantages to living in less populous areas: lower housing costs, lower crime rates, less traffic, better air quality and an overall lower cost of living. "Our community has great schools, an airport 10 minutes away, and low housing costs," said Wayne Pearson, former president of the Smethport, Pa., Chamber of Commerce. "You can buy a four-bedroom house in Smethport for $70,000."

There is much in rural America to lure businesses, as well. "Businesses are attracted to our area today because we are one of the few places in the nation that remains above the economic fray," said Kelvin L. Hullet, president of the Bismarck-Mandan, N.D., Chamber of Commerce. "Our real-estate prices are stable, we had limited exposure to subprime mortgages, our unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the nation and the community continues to be ranked in the Forbes Inc. top 5 places for small businesses." Graphic

"We’re promoting Smethport as a place to run an Internet business and, eventually, retire," said Pearson. "Telecommuting is the future of the workplace. As the next generation of managers takes control, the concept of ‘face time’ will not be nearly as important as it has been in the past. If you can do your job from anywhere, why not choose small-town America?"

Businesses and workers cannot embrace rural areas, however, if they are unable to access the same kind of broadband infrastructure there that is available in nonrural areas. All of the natural beauty and affordable real estate in the world can’t make up for the lack of state-of-the- art broadband availability. "As a rural state, broadband is an essential component to doing business [in North Dakota]," Hullet said. "The world is no longer an isolated place and many of our companies are doing business internationally. Reliable communication is imperative to this business model."

Boomerang Families

Although the rural brain drain may be robbing rural America of its young people, a fair number are returning after experiencing life in the big city. "While rural youth might move away after going to college, once they get married and decide they want to raise a family, we’re seeing them come back," said Chase Gentry, executive director of the Clovis (New Mexico) Industrial Development Corp. "They realize that they want to raise their children in a small-town atmosphere."

Kefalas concurs. "There are people maybe with young families or who tried urban living and wanted to opt out and try something else, who could be lured to the region," she told Newsweek. "Maybe not every 22-yearold, but maybe a 32-year-old who would think, ‘This is great. I can raise my kids, I can buy a gigantic house. And as long as I have the digital infrastructure, I can telecommute. I can have a very good quality of life.’" Absent high-quality broadband access in rural areas, however, there may be no decision to be made.

Broadband to the Rescue

Recognizing the tremendous importance of broadband infrastructure to the future of rural communities, numerous NTCA member companies already have taken significant steps toward bringing broadband to rural America. According to the "NTCA 2009 Broadband/Internet Availability Survey Report," 98% of survey respondents are offering broadband to some portion of their customer base. Additionally, two programs that are part of ARRA— the National Telecommunications Information Administration’s Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program (BTOP) and Rural Utilities Service’s Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP)—have begun to award 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.