Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Dealing with Broadband's Rural Downside


There's the virtual rural America in the Facebook game "Farmville," and there's the real world. Rural communities need to be sure that broadband technology doesn't displace the good of the real world with that of the virtual.

In many of the current discussions on rural broadband development, it is generally assumed that what is good for rural areas is good for the nation as well. And vice versa — that what is good for the nation will necessarily be beneficial for rural areas, too.

Such homogenizing optimism is frequently found among those who believe that rural broadband is the Heinz 57 sauce of development. Broadband will, either directly or indirectly, have a positive impact on matters economic, civic, infrastructural, educational, and health-related at both the national and local/rural levels. All at the same time.

Broadband is one-size-fits-all development!

While there may be cause for such exuberance in some cases, there’s another alternative, one that is far less attractive. It’s also possible that the benefits achieved in some areas are purchased only at the expense of declines or drawbacks in other places. Indeed, a quick glance at the historical record suggests that that any belief that technological development is an unalloyed good warrants a healthy dose of skepticism. 

For example, while rural electrification dramatically improved the quality of life on farms and allowed for the introduction of new laborsaving technologies, many of the rural laborers "saved" by such innovations were left without any other means of employment. Workers displaced by electricity were eventually forced to relocate to urban areas. There may have been an economic gain for rural areas in increased efficiency, but the cost was outmigration. 

With rural electrification, the only unqualified winners were those national manufacturers of electrical equipment and appliances, such as General Electric and Westinghouse, whose profits were generally not returned to the localities in which they had been generated.

Remember, there is a real Farmville. It's in Virginia. The massive reductions in the agricultural labor force in the wake of rural electrification likely will not be mirrored by rural broadband development. But that doesn’t mean broadband deployment won’t have some adverse effects.

For instance, the Federal Communications Commission’s recent report "Bringing Broadband to Rural America," lists three benefits of broadband to local communities: More efficient local government, greater distance learning, and easier tele-medicine.  While these seem to be laudable, well-intentioned goals, the report does not explain exactly how broadband will bring about these improvements. 

Nor does the report recognize the potential for such results to work against rural areas.  

Take the efficiencies broadband will bring to local government. The FCC report says broadband will benefit local government through investment in "cloud computing" technologies. Local workers would use extremely basic terminals to access information and programs (word processing and spreadsheet software) stored in data centers thousands of miles away.

By renting services and computing power from national-level providers such as Google and Amazon, local governments would be able to reduce significantly their IT and technical support staff.  Additionally, "cloud computing" arrangements can automate accounting and billing tasks and, as a result, move record-keeping positions off-site.  While the payroll savings would be attractive to any municipal comptroller, the impact such dislocations might have on many rural economies could be significant.  

Think of the critiques frequently made against Wal-Mart's presence in rural areas.  The retail giant's stunningly low prices, like many of the cost-savings to be realized through outsourced broadband services, are extremely attractive to many financially troubled rural areas. Yet Wal-Mart’s undeniable economies of scale can force local businesses to close. Not only are local employers and workers displaced, but local character and culture are jeopardized as well as unique shops are shuttered.

Is Wal-Mart good or bad for rural communities? Well, it’s both.

Okay, there may be nothing culturally unique about the clerks in the accounting department at City Hall or the radiologist at the local hospital who could be replaced through tele-medicine. But they are important people in a rural community, who bring more to the place than what they earn on the job. They are the volunteers at the school (or school board members), the stalwarts of the county political party or the people who know and carry on the history of the place. 

Broadband could have the same effect as school consolidation, displacing local activities and professions and replacing them with centralized services miles away. On a similar note, the widespread school consolidation movement of the 1960s and 70s provided rural communities with improved facilities and modern learning environments.  At the same time, however, consolidation displaced teachers, administrators, and staff members, while massively increasing the length of some students' commuting times.  Furthermore, the local sense of community was restructured, as smaller communities lost one of their principal sites for interaction and activity. 

We realize the considerable potential for broadband to benefit certain areas of rural life. Local artisans and craftspeople can sell their wares to a global clientele. Students can find the classes that will supplement, but not eclipse, previously existing local education opportunities.

Undoubtedly, the national economy will be bolstered through the construction of rural broadband infrastructure.  Not only will service providers such as AT&T and Verizon benefit, but e-merchants such as Amazon and various cloud computing services will see gains as well.  By gaining access to these services, many rural areas will realize benefits, too, at least in the short-term. What remains to be seen is whether national economic benefits and efficiencies necessarily translate to the local, rural level. 

By more thoroughly integrating nearly every facet of life into a national economic and informational matrix, rural areas are bound to experience changes in their economic and cultural structures — and not necessarily for the better. Rural communities should seek to better understand both the positive and negative repercussions which broadband deployment may bring to their areas, and should seek now to actively work to position themselves to best adapt to and benefit from these seemingly inevitable changes.

Broadband tends to make local places less important. So now is the time for rural communities — which are all about remaining local — to consider ways they can maintain their identities as broadband spreads. Partnerships with local newspapers to create community “online portals” might be one approach. Such portals could be the online places where rural places reinforce local identity and solidarity.

Broadband could be the means for rural communities to learn about each other and collaboratively develop strategies and policies for rural life in their states and the nation. Being connected online doesn’t inevitably require people to abandon the local and the material. But rural communities need to act now to make sure that broadband’s virtual world doesn’t overwhelm the real.

Sharon Strover is director of the Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute at the University of Texas. Nick Muntean is a PhD student in the Radio-Television-Film Department at the University of Texas at Austin.


Rural communities and broadband

The big benefit we are seeing for rural communities is the potential for revitalization of downtown areas.  Fiber in rural downtowns is attracting new businesses and jobs into buildings that lost their retail or manufacturing businesses many years ago.  High performance fiber networks to rural homes are enabling new kinds of work from home opportunities, which is a big deal as the cost of gas and the cost of commuting long distances to jobs continues to climb.  Not everyone will work from home, but in our surveys of rural areas, we are finding that between 10% and 15% of rural residents are already working from home.  Well-designed fiber networks that are capable of delivering business class services to residences are an  important economic development strategy.

Class A office space in rural downtowns and competitive fiber services is bringing entrepreneurs and professional businesses to rural areas.  Business people are evaluating small towns for three things:  quality of life, Class A office space availability, and affordable fiber services.

Places like Danville, Virginia and Galax, Virginia that have made these kinds of investments, including fiber, are already seeing these benefits.

Great article!

Several years ago as I driving through Appalachian Ohio, I passed a billboard for a local college with the tagline "Where Technology Meets Nature." It made me laugh and cringe at once, because often when technology meets nature the relationship ends badly, especially for nature. It also reminded me of a quip I heard thirdhand about Edward Abbey. He was addressing a graduating class and said something to the effect, "People often say that youth are the country's most important natural resource. Don't let them tell you that! Have you seen what they DO to natural resources?!"

In any case, all this is to say that I very much appreciate your caution that we take a balanced view of the broadband promise. Too much is at stake to be Pollyannas about anything offered to rural America with as much fanfare as technology has been.

Think Globally, Connect Locally?

Much of the "downside" potential in rural broadband derives from the assumption that these broadband networks will be operated by absentee-owners.  Fortunately, today's digital network technologies lend themselves to local and regional ownership and operation, preferably by nonprofit entities whose charters ensure local control and accountability.

Local networks ensure that jobs are not out-sourced and that revenues are plowed back into the community, not diverted by Wall Street.

Even more importantly, local networks promote social capital formation (SCF), a powerful economic driver typically discounted or ignored by conventional economists and policymakers (curiously, SCF is routinely part of the economic calculus in the so-called "developing world").

Social capital occurs on a human-scale. It's a force most potent in communities, where social ties and relationships extend beyond the workplace. A prime example of social capital is the IT personnel required to operate a broadband network. When these IT experts share their knowledge as mentors for local students or entrepreneurs (or launch new businesses themselves), they are building and leveraging social capital.

In today's broadband world, there is no technical reason to consolidate IT staff in hub cities like Denver or Atlanta. The main rationale is to minimize labor costs and to create greater economies of scale. This rationale invariably favors urban over rural, robbing the latter of a critical economic and community resource.

It doesn't have to be this way.  We can create policies that favor local networks.

BTW, a myth about "cloud computing" is that it only works at the macroeconomic level.  In fact, local networks can easily host cloud computing platforms to meet specific community needs in ways that the "big box" clouds can never replicate. The nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) in the mountains of North Carolina is planning just such a platform.  Stay tuned.


Wally is right...

Wally Bowen is exactly right.  High performance local networks, locally managed, have significant advantages for not only cloud computing applications but for things like movies on demand, which is really a "cloud" computing application.

The fast local network, with a locally attached cloud server, not only dramatically increases the responsiveness of the cloud service or application, it also reduces the cost.  It is much cheaper to distribute cloud servers than to pay the backhaul to some distant, centralized cloud computing facility.

I have argued for a while that local community networks should partner with economic developers to attach supercomputers to local community broadband networks and lease out time on the supercomputer to businesses.  It creates a revenue stream and would be a powerful business attraction and retention tool.

Rural broadband

From a very rural northwest Alabama city, Haleyville, I send you greetings.

Home of the first 9-1-1 phone call in the U.S.

Great article with the potential downside of rural broadband. 

Over four years ago, I did as you suggested and began to utilize the internet with a hometown type site. It has become very successful. I have leased and programmed a cable TV channel for twenty years. As Dish and Direct took a direct hit on cable, the internet allowed me to do the same type information programming without constraints of cable or outages in rain. Like a paper, my web site is ready to be "read" or "watched" or "listened to" with the included videos of city council meetings, football games and much more. 

I discovered over four years ago that almost everyone in this rural community owned or had access to an online computer everyday. This information came to me while having coffee with a computer repairman and watching the people who brought in their computers, most with a virus. Some of the customers were very, very rural, if that is the politically correct description. 

Today, even our congressman and soldiers from this area can keep up with their hometown daily from anywhere in the world, including Afghanistan. 

We do have a local newspaper, slow to adapt to the internet. The paper is published twice weekly. The newspaper web site is only updated twice each week

My web site is updated one to five times daily, even weekends. People have come to expect their local news in a quick, easily to read format. I have more hits daily, than the newspaper has subscribers. 

Please take a look at my site, which has a planned face lift within the next couple of months. 


Thank you.

Harold Bearden