Dealing with Broadband’s Rural Downside

Broadband will benefit rural communities. But it has downsides, too. Rural communities should plan now to make this new technology serve their interests.

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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.

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