Cullman Electric Cooperative (Cullman, Alabama) held a Facebook Live Event in June to announce Sprout Fiber Internet, becoming the nation's latest electric cooperative to launch a broadband program. CEO Tim Culpepper shared the cooperative's vision of delivering that technology to its rural region, much like it did with electricity decades ago. (Photo by Melissa Gaines, WordSouth)

With Covid-19 infection rates and hospitalizations surging in parts of rural America, it’s difficult to think about what lies ahead for these regions. But on the other side of the crisis — after a vaccine is widely available and we start rebuilding our local economies — could lie perhaps the most significant opportunity for growth and advancement rural America has ever seen.

Several factors are converging to bring about this watershed moment. Leading the list is the human, psychological and economic toll the pandemic has taken on our country’s urban centers. Out-migration has been noted as city-dwellers look to escape the fallout from the virus. Further, a Harris poll in April showed that 29% were very or somewhat likely to move from a densely populated area toward a more rural region once the pandemic ends.

Such movement is only possible, of course, if people can take their work with them — and this is an area where hundreds of rural communities have an advantage. While more than 20 million rural Americans remain on the wrong side of the digital divide, communities served by locally-owned telecommunications companies who have been investing in technology for decades now offer some of the best broadband connectivity in the nation. Further, there is now significant movement among electric cooperatives toward building fiber networks throughout their distribution systems.

This work shows no signs of slowing down. Programs such as the USDA’s ReConnect, the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, and various state broadband grant and loan programs are directing significant public dollars toward the goal of connecting all Americans. And this trend will certainly continue no matter what happens on Election Day. The Trump administration has certainly prioritized broadband investment. In a Biden administration, the call for significant infrastructure investment would only increase as part of efforts to pull the country out of its economic malaise (after all, when Biden was Vice President, the government’s total public construction spending hit an all-time high in response to the Great Recession).

Eastex Telephone Cooperative, headquartered in Henderson, Texas, is expanding its fiber network to support more broadband-enable services such as telehealth, remote work and distance learning. (Photo by Melissa Gaines, WordSouth)

No, we are not on the cusp of a mass exodus that will drain every American city of its human capital. As Fareed Zakaria writes in his new book, Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, cities will endure. “No rural awakening is at hand. Most of the people who leave one city will simply move to another, perhaps a smaller one. Others will buy homes in the suburbs, still centering their lives around a city, and many more will decide to stay put.”

But author and entrepreneur James Altucher tapped a cultural nerve in a New York Post article in August when he declared that his beloved New York City was “dead forever.” Having lived near the World Trade Center on 9/11 and near Wall Street when the Great Recession took hold, Altucher says, “This time it’s different. One reason: bandwidth.”

“Everyone has choices now,” he writes. “You can live in your hometown in the middle of wherever. And you can be just as productive, make the same salary, have higher quality of life with a cheaper cost.”

And therein lies the opportunity for rural America. We have the connectivity in many communities. We have the lower cost of living and higher quality of life. I say “we” because I’m living proof. My rural northeast corner of Alabama is wired with a fiber network capable of providing gigabit internet speeds and beyond. From here, we’ve grown a company from a spare bedroom to the Inc. 5000 list, managing a distributed workforce spread across five states. Earlier this year, we sold our company to a communications cooperative in Oregon. I’ve never been to Oregon, and our new parent company’s management team has never been here. We did it all over broadband.

The takeaway for rural communities is clear. Continue investing in broadband networks that will allow people to bring their work, their businesses, their ideas to your town. But on a broader scale, approach this moment in history as a true economic recruitment effort. Invest in culture. Develop opportunities for public gatherings (we are social animals, after all). Actively recruit across all age groups and demographics. You don’t have to transform your community into a microcosm of city life and thus lose its unique identity. But you can expand the vision of what your community can become and position it for growth that can enrich all elements of life.

Rural America may not be poised for a great awakening, but thanks to broadband, the opportunities to reimagine its future have arguably never been greater. Community leaders should begin now to prepare for it.

Stephen V. Smith is founder and vice president for broadband strategies at WordSouth.

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