A new wide-ranging report on broadband emphasizes that the great technology challenge for rural areas now is to keep pace with Internet transmission speeds.

“Networks that connect research institutions in the United States can move 100,000 times more data per unit of time than the dial-up connections that some Americans,” many of them rural residents, “still must use,” policy expert Hanns Kuttner told a gathering at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.. He stressed, “The technology gap is not a fixed deficit that once filled, stays filled. The technology gap will be larger—much larger—in the future, along with the information and technology gap, unless significant action is taken to overcome it.”

The volume of data coursing through Internet connections – an explosion of imagery and sound as well as computations and text – means that without very high speed connections, rural places will fall further and further behind in manufacturing, agricultural profitability, education, and health care. All of these institutions, economic sectors and services increasingly rely on easy access to large-scale uploads and downloads from the web. And 9.8 million of rural Americans currently lack access to broadband speeds sufficient to handle these new functions.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) now defines  “basic broadband” as at least 4 megabits per second download speed and 1 megabit per second upload speed.  These are the capacities needed for such now-commonplace features as video streaming, a mainstay in education, business, and e-health care as well as online entertainment and social networking.

The National Broadband Map, which uses the more conservative thresholds of 3 Mpbs for download speed and 768 kbps for uploads, estimates 16% of rural Americans now lack access to basic broadband. In contrast, only 0.3% urbanites lack broadband access. (Enter your address here to see what downloads speeds are available in your area.)

This discrepancy has already taken a toll, Kuttner writes. He points to population declines in rural areas and, foremost, to a widening education gap. Since 1990, the difference in college graduation rates between urban and rural counties has widened from 9.5 to 12.6 percentage points.  Broadband is, of course, a necessity for taking part in today’s online curricula, with its reliance on graphics, audio materials, films, and real-time conferencing. Kuttner contends that every percentage point decrease in college graduation rates represents $625 billion in lost wages and economic activity over a lifetime.

The report (available here in full) brings together a range of recent studies concerning the impact of broadband on medical care, education, wages, and more. For example Kuttner cites an ERS study (2009) that compared  rural counties with and without high broadband availability in 2000; it found  that “the high broadband counties, over 2002 to 2006, experienced relatively higher growth in total employment, wage and salary jobs and the number of business proprietors.”

Since U.S. wages are lower in most rural areas, Kuttner refers to low-density communities with basic broadband capacity as a potential “middle shore” for the outsourcing of technology jobs from cities. “While more costly than offshoring IT work to Russia or India, rural IT firms are building their own value proposition,” Kuttner writes. “They present themselves as providers of computer coding services whose convenience, cultural familiarity with the United States, and lower need for oversight make them a better value proposition for some kinds of work.”

An appalling gap in health care already exists between rural and urban America. Kuttner cites a 2004 study finding that urban elderly people make on average 10.9 doctor visits each year, rural elderly, only 5.5. Developments in telemedicine in combination with pressures to bring down health care costs, point to the stark realities that will soon face rural residents.

Kuttner writes that where rural hospitals do not expand their offerings via telehealth, patients will either have to travel longer distances to receive care or they will give up on seeing a doctor due to the travel costs required. Differentials in life expectancy between rural and urban Americans, as reported this summer in the Daily Yonder, already show the literally terminal effects of this imbalance.

Looking ahead, Kuttner foresees strong potential for Internet applications in agriculture, as well as rural health care and e-business. But the necessary extension of high speed broadband into rural America and the means for keeping up with the ever-increasing IT capacities that the future will demand won’t just happen in low-density areas.

The federal Communications Act of 1934 insured that telephone service would reach all parts of the nation. Kuttner writes, “The same policies that assured universal availability of voice telecommunications thus had the effect of providing access to this first way for ordinary people and businesses to access the Internet” – the “first way” being dial-up Internet access.
But while existing law and policy may have sufficed early in the dial-up era, Kuttner’s report stresses that this assurance does not apply to our current phase of communications. The technology that made possible faster speeds also spurred advances and elaboration in the functions of the Internet – video-streaming, being just one now-rather-dated example. These functions, and the benefits that come with them, now demand much greater IT capacity. The Communications Act that insured equal access to telephone service is not adequate to keep pace with the accelerating developments of IT, developments that in a short order become demands and requirements.

“The uses that are most important today may not be the most important in ten years,” Kuttner writes. “The cost of not having full access to information and communication technology will grow as the capacity of those technologies grows.”

So who will pay those costs, if the federal communications act does not require it and when funds provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 have been spent?

Greg Laudeman, formerly head of Georgia Tech’s Tech Connect program, was also part of the Hudson Institute discussion, October 15, and responded to Kuttner’s report. He pointed out that the market for high speed broadband in cities will continue to be sufficient, at least to fulfill the needs of competitive businesses, “But in rural areas you need more cooperation than competition.”

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