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EDITOR’S NOTE: Broadband holds the potential to transform rural communities through access to new markets, healthcare services, cultural enrichment, education, and other essential services. But that potential is limited by lack connectivity, according to Roberto Gallardo, Ph.D.
Gallardo is the leader of the Mississippi State University Extension Service Intelligent Community Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.
In a his new book, Responsive Countryside: The Digital Age and Rural Communities, Gallardo examines the role of broadband in rural community development and lays out a process through which rural areas can take stock of their broadband readiness.
In this excerpt, Gallardo describes how rural leaders can galvanize residents on making broadband service a community-wide priority.
As with anything, making sure the message is understood is always a challenge. … These suggestions are based on my fieldwork over the past several years and are not meant to be comprehensive. Rather, they are intended to help you get the ball rolling.
- Lack of local leadership buy-in is a deal breaker. Transitioning to the digital age implies change, and many rural communities are not thrilled about change. It is critical to have at least one trusted local champion. The local champion or champions should introduce the concept and work with the community to drive the efforts. [USDA] Extension [Service] and other partners should step in when needed to educate and support, but the community should be the driver.In my experience, rural communities have recruited and/or partnered with local champions in different ways. In some, the mayor is the main driving force. In others, it is the local chamber of commerce or economic developer. Extension personnel have served as the main change agents in other communities. One rural community even formed an “intelligent community” council consisting of five to eight community leaders. If the will and motivation exist, ways to get things done will be found.
- Asking why you need faster Internet today is like asking why you needed electricity when candlelight was the standard 100 years ago. Nobody could have envisioned what electricity would bring. Similarly, nobody can envision what more sophisticated Internet-based applications will bring. The main issue in many communities is not the need for broadband connectivity, but the need for faster Most rural communities already have some level of connectivity, but it becomes increasingly inadequate as more sophisticated web applications become available. As more users and communities gain access to faster connectivity, the web will adapt accordingly. If you don’t believe me, try browsing today’s web using dial-up Internet service. Let me know how it goes.
- Broadband connectivity and applications are quality-of-life issues. Long past are the days when the web was a luxury used only for entertainment. Younger people expect digital accessibility and engagement. Since recent generations will be forging society and the economy over the next few decades, digital resources will have as much impact on quality of life as education, roads, and crime prevention.As more digital-age technologies prove to be beneficial to older citizens, connectivity will become a quality-of-life issue for them, as well. Just being able to videoconference with grandchildren is already increasing the rate of digital technology adoption. As telehealth applications become more common, adoption will continue to rise among older residents, assuming privacy and security issues are addressed.Furthermore, broadband has the potential to be a true equalizer—not only between urban and rural but also between races/ethnicities and age groups. This possibility is why addressing the digital divide is so important. Some groups are on the wrong side of the divide and falling further behind. Ironically, the technology they can’t access or don’t know how to use is the very thing that could provide opportunities and empower them to “catch up.” I am not kidding when I tell rural stakeholders that not having access to technology or knowing how to use it is equal to not knowing how to read and write.
- Demonstrating usefulness is critical. Low-income and older residents lag in technology adoption. Reasons vary, but not being able to afford the service is near or at the top of the list for most. Many low-income and older households, with limited discretionary income, are already paying for cellular service, which makes it virtually impossible for them to understand the need to pay extra for a wireline connection. It is important to teach them about limited data plans and the fact that home Wi-Fi can be used by their mobile devices. Partner with schools and churches to make sure children and grandchildren convey the message and demonstrate the usefulness of the technology. Children can be persistent indeed.
- Urban density is no longer an advantage. Physical proximity and population density are becoming less relevant in the digital age. Virtual density is becoming a more critical factor. Decentralized interactions can take place anywhere thanks to rapidly advancing communications technology. Collaborative tools allow people scattered in different continents to exchange ideas and resources.In addition, having a virtual presence opens the door to a worldwide market. There really is no reason why a business in Town X cannot compete with a business in New York City. Virtual density liberates rural businesses from the low-density cage that previously trapped them. Physical limitations, so characteristic of the Industrial Age, are no longer applicable in the digital age. As I mentioned previously, a small business in a Mississippi town of 2,200 people conducts 90 percent of its sales online; its followers on Instagram alone are triple the town’s population. As long as the business has the capacity and creativity, the world is the limit.In my opinion, telecommuting is what will drive broadband adoption rates higher in rural areas. A recent study by the Brookings Institute found that telecommuting was the most significant factor behind broadband adoption rates in metropolitan areas. Rural communities lack jobs, but remote locations should not be an issue when telework is an option. On the other hand, successful rural businesses will not have to relocate due to a shortage of workers. Telework is a win-win scenario in either case. However, your community must provide incentives or convincing reasons to promote the adoption of telework policies both from workers’ and the businesses’ perspectives.
- “Middle of nowhere” mentality is no longer applicable. When I first moved to Mississippi, my natural curiosity led me to always ask people I met where they were from. A great number of them laughed and said, “You would not know! It’s in the middle of nowhere!” Granted, during the increasingly outdated Industrial Age, this saying was used for good reason. Geographic isolation was a real disadvantage that limited development—not growth—of rural communities. In the digital age, rural communities have a clean slate. The digital age has the potential to level the playing field between urban and rural.With connectivity and a certain level of know-how, rural communities are provided with a real opportunity to thrive in the digital age. Applications such as crowdfunding, telework, telehealth, online education, and online presence can be used to great advantage when coupled with intrinsic attributes of rural living, such as natural settings and the absence of traffic jams. Lack of jobs, education, and health care has always placed rural communities at a disadvantage. If the digital-age transition goes well, these disadvantages will vanish. First, rural communities must want to make this transition, and they must understand the challenges and opportunities.