Communications technologies have enormous consequences even though most of them go unrealized when those technologies are young.
No one would have anticipated that Facebook or Twitter might one day figure in revolutions, just as no one could have anticipated that the telegraph would catalyze both the standardization of time keeping in the U.S. as well as the creation of national economic markets.
We are now in the midst of a national debate — indeed, an international debate — around the impact of broadband networks. The current administration is intent on expanding access to broadband, especially in rural regions that have lacked fast access to the Internet. Broadband’s importance can be measured in the over $7 billion in federal stimulus funds dedicated to broadband programs in 2009-2010 as well as the high speed wireless initiative that promises to bring 4G services to most of the country.
Critics of these measures ask exactly what broadband yields, and whether such jolts of investment found in the stimulus are justified. What does it provide to rural regions that justify such large-scale investments?
The simple answer is that rural communities will be economically crippled without broadband access. That’s the long and the short of it.
Broadband will not bring immediate economic transformation to rural America. But regions that lack broadband will be crippled. Having broadband may not necessarily mean a sharp increase in jobs; however, not having broadband will probably mean fewer jobs.
This paradox exists because Internet connectivity increasingly is necessary for many political, economic and social transactions — in everything from contacting elected representatives to filing insurance papers to keeping up with classes offered at the local community center.
Not having access to these mechanisms means being cut off from opportunities and from what is now defined as normal communication channels. Broadband is expected — by employers, job seekers and businesses looking to bring goods to markets. Having access to broadband, therefore, is simply treading water. Not having it means you sink.
Rural is a single term that covers a lot of territory. Some rural communities are close to metro areas while others are way over yonder. Rural residents are miners, artists, farmers, factory workers and commuters. One-size-fits-all solutions — even on matters as seemingly straightforward as technology — won’t work.
There may be some regions where broadband will nicely boost productivity, or create new opportunities. We know, for example, that tourist areas benefit from broadband because they can offer vacationers the opportunity to stay connected or to continue to work in those locations.
But regional economies were shaped long before broadband existed and those factors that shape rural communities are already “in place,” and unlikely to change. West Virginia and Kentucky will continue to mine coal with or without broadband because that’s where coal is found.
While broadband connectivity usually cannot fundamentally change those underlying regional economic factors, it can enhance them.
The economic changes broadband will bring to areas won’t be easy to measure. It may, in fact, be impossible to show broadband’s effects at these micro levels. Broadband won’t have the impact of electricity, after all. But this technology does offer the prospect for profound changes in the future, changes we cannot begin to foresee.
Rural communities are at a sharp disadvantage when compared to the cities. The most recently released statistics show that 68.2% of American households have broadband connections, but a 10% penetration urban-rural disparity still exists.
Moreover, there’s little competition among service providers in rural America, and some data suggest that prices are higher in these regions as a result. Additional investment in broadband availability might increase competition and shift prices down, a potential boon to rural regions.
Broadband in rural America isn’t about jobs being created next week. New technology won’t wipe out a community’s comparative disadvantages.
Broadband, however, is fundamental to development in the most complete, long-term sense. For libraries, schools, health clinics, businesses and hospitals, broadband is a basic need. And that’s the way this technology needs to be treated, as something no community can be without.
Sharon Strover is the director of the Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute at the University of Texas.