The federal government will issue billions in grants to bring broadband to underserved places. Strong local leadership will make this program more successful.
Place matters with weather, accent, horizon and food. It matters with broadband, too, according to a new report.
Broadband providers in four rural counties were given the same federal grant, but the results were remarkably different. In some places, broadband spread like dandelions. In others, the results were lackluster.
“What happened in some of these places was quite unlike what happened in other places,” said Sharon Strover, a rural broadband expert at the University of Texas.
The federal government is about to spend $7.2 billion to help spread broadband service to communities that now don’t have fast Internet connections. The rural program will be run by the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, the same agency that issued the grants to the four counties in this study. The report is in that sense a preview of what’s likely to happen when the billions from the stimulus package begin to flow into rural communities.
(Leaders from the Department of Commerce, Department of Agriculture and Federal Communications Commission are meeting Tuesday to discuss how the different agencies will use the funds. At this first meeting, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsak, FCC Acting Chairman Michael J. Copps, and Commerce’s Acting Chief Rick Wade will also outline future meetings where public comments and questions can be aired.)
Researchers tracked federal grants given to broadband providers in four rural counties (one each in Michigan and Kentucky; two in South Texas). The university-based researchers interviewed people in the counties at the time the RUS grants were first issued, in 2005. They returned three years later to conduct another survey, to determine what had happened with the influx of the federal broadband money.
(The study is titled Closing the Rural Broadband Gap. You can get a complete copy here.)
There were some common themes among the four counties. Broadband use increased in all the counties between 2005 and 08. In each county, residents made great use of internet connections in public libraries. Also, “home broadband users were more likely than non-users to plan further education, a consistent finding across all four sites,” according to the report. People in all four counties used broadband to take courses.
(It’s worthwhile to note that libraries were not good places for people to take online classes. Time was limited online at the libraries and students could not be assured of getting the time online they needed to complete their work. Internet education works best when the courses can be taken at home.)
The researchers also found that as broadband spread there was an uptick in the numbers of people who wanted to start their own businesses. And they discovered that people in the four counties found uses of the Internet that “increased the social support experienced by rural residents.”
Not all the findings were encouraging for those who see broadband as the key to saving rural communities and economies. One of the more interesting — and counterintuitive — findings in the report is that broadband connections may spur outmigration from rural areas.
“One reason people are most enthusiastic about broadband is that their small town will have amenities found in big cities,” Strover said. “They thought (broadband) would fill the entertainment quota for young people and make their community more attractive.” Strover said the researchers found the opposite to be true. “There was a strong correlation between subscribing to these services and intention to leave,” said the University of Texas professor.
One of the most striking lessons learned in the study, according to Strover, is that local leadership made a large difference in how effective the RUS grants were employed. In the two Texas counties, there was little community involvement in the broadband project. In one county, the project fell apart entirely.
In Pike County, Kentucky — located in the Appalachian coalfields — Strover said local leaders championed the broadband initiative. The mayor of Pikeville (the county seat) “was extremely enthusiastic,” according to Strover. The Kentucky effort targeted poorer and less educated residents and the program worked. Among the four counties, Pike County registered the strongest gains with older adults and those with less than a high school education. By 2008, more than half of those in Pike County with only a high school diploma were using broadband. The age gap between young and old users also narrowed in Kentucky.
Overall in Pike County, the percentage of people using a broadband connection increased from 23% in 2005 to 56% in 2008.
“That you could have so many different outcomes with an identical program was very striking to me,” Strover said this week. The success in Kentucky compared to the more tepid results in Texas indicated that simply issuing grants wasn’t sufficient.
Smaller communities need training as well as hardware, Strover said, “so small businesses can learn what they can do” with broadband connections. Community colleges would be the best source of training in most rural communities. Federal broadband grants need to be monitored.
“My biggest reaction to the stimulus package is that they really need to have a clue regarding what the communities need and want,” Strover said. “And they need to have evaluations.”