Does it Take More than Broadband? Well, Duh…

The Washington Post discovers that there may be something more to economic development in rural America than just broadband.

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Is it too much to ask that reporters at national newspapers be required to pass a Rural 101 course before writing about rural America? This was my immediate reaction to the Thursday, April 22nd, article in the Washington Post, “Rural Riddle: Do Jobs Follow Broadband Access?” 

The article finds that jobs don’t always come with broadband. To illustrate her point, reporter Cecilia Kang visits two towns that have had different experiences with broadband. “One attracted two large companies that created 700 good-paying jobs for residents,” she reports. “In the other, only a few home-based businesses got off the ground.”

The story’s focus on two “hamlets” in Southwest Virginia reflects a basic ignorance of rural America. (Is it just me or is “hamlets” a word used exclusively by urban people? After all, have you ever heard anybody say, “I’m headed into the hamlet to pick up some milk”?) Worse, the article reveals some deeply unhealthy (and widespread) assumptions of what rural life should be like in order to be considered successful. 

Lebanon, Virginia, is the successful town in the Washington Post story, the one that “attracted” the two companies.  What the article neglects to note (though the map clearly reveals) is that Lebanon is a county seat of a rural county that is located only 21 miles from Interstate 81 near the far larger town of Abingdon. Lebanon and Russell County have had diverse and creative strategies for years to capitalize on these connections. The town and county have retooled their workforce in a long-term effort to recapture economic prosperity. Whatever has happened in Lebanon, it didn’t hinge on broadband.

The Washington Post
Rose Hill and Lebanon are both rural towns in the Commonwealth of Virginia. But they are in two totally different parts of the state.

Unsuccessful Rose Hill, meanwhile, is farther into the mountains. It’s in Lee County, Virginia, and is far more rural and isolated than Lebanon. Rose Hill is not even the county seat. Its population of 714 people is 65 miles away from I-81. It is held up as a failure for only generating a few home-grown businesses as a result of broadband access.

Kang’s story tells us that two towns that are different in almost every way (size, location and history of economic development efforts) have had entirely different experiences with broadband. On that entirely unsurprising finding, the Washington Post publishes a front-page story about the “riddle” of what good likely will come from the $7.2 billion that will be spent to bring broadband connections to rural America. 

The story has experts, of course, and they have expert-like things to say about what broadband means to rural economies. “For the idea that some sort of magical economic development will occur, there is no evidence that that can happen,” Robert W. Crandall, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Kang. “You can’t just drop an Internet line and expect jobs growth. Getting broadband access is only the first part,” said Larry Irving, former head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Okay, we can all agree that broadband isn’t magic. (The Yonder has reported on the academic study finding that local leadership makes a huge difference in how broadband is accepted in a rural community. Hard work equals widespread use of broadband.) And was there anybody anywhere who believed that all that is needed to bring prosperity to a small (or large) town is to dangle out a strand of broadband fiber?

Here is the reality: In truly rural places like Rose Hill a small number of homegrown jobs makes a big difference. Broadband increases the odds that young people, better educated and connected than their parents, will stay and create a new rural future that none of us can yet imagine.  

The debate about broadband’s effects in rural communities is filled with straw men and outsized expectations. No, jobs don’t “follow” broadband. (There is no known formula for job creation. If there were, we’d have a lot less unemployment.) There will be relatively few places like Lebanon that will attract large businesses, to say nothing of high tech companies like Grumman. Even before broadband, there were few small towns that won the “buffalo hunt” for the small number of companies that were building new factories or offices in small towns. To measure development success by how many of these large plants a town can attract misunderstands what development is all about.

July 4th in Lebanon, a town much larger than Rose Hill.

Rose Hill tells the more likely story — rural communities finding modest success building on opportunities they already have in place. To set Lebanon as the standard of success is completely backward, and reflects a common bias that small numbers of jobs in more isolated rural places don’t matter.  

Most troubling, however, is the corrosive assumption that success requires rural communities to mimic urban America. In this worldview, vibrancy is defined as creating new jobs that attract people from elsewhere to come take them. Remaining a small place is inherently deficient or, worse, unhip.   

A more important “rural riddle” than what broadband access will mean to small towns is how America develops a new appreciation of the challenges and opportunities in its rural communities. We would do well to reflect on the words of Aldo Leopold in his much-loved and deeply influential book, A Sand County Almanac:

 “Recreation is not building more roads into lovely country, but building more receptivity in the still unlovely human mind.” 

Leopold was making a case for conservation, but his challenge speaks to our profound national need to accept rural America on its own terms, rather than settling for the decidedly unlovely suburban and urban notions of success.

Jason Gray is a writer/consultant. He lives in North Carolina.

 

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