The study found a correlation between the use of broadband and many measures of civic engagement in rural (nonmetropolitan) U.S. counties. In these charts, the instance of voting and contacting a public official in rural counties went up as rates of broadband "adoption," or use, increased. (Data Source for all graphs: 2011 Current Population Survey and Federal Communications Commission Industry Analysis and Technology Division)

Rural folks know that interacting with neighbors, voting in local elections, and participating in community organizations is important. Having a broadband connection has certainly made some parts of rural life much easier. But, does broadband make it easier – or harder – for rural citizens to be civically involved? Our new study tries to answer these questions, and also looks at what specific aspect of broadband is most important for civic engagement.

To understand the relationship between civic engagement and broadband, we used publicly available data on each. The Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey from 2011 includes 19 measures of civic engagement for its nearly 50,000 respondents. These included activities such as voting in local elections, joining a civic organization, having dinner with family or friends, or trusting people in the neighborhood. We generated aggregate scores for each measure for the non-metropolitan residents in each state, and then compared them to the levels of broadband in those same rural areas at the same point in time (2011). We wanted to know, in particular, if being active locally was more related with measures of broadband adoption, access, or community anchor institutions.

Broadband adoption is measured as the percentage of households in a county with a wired broadband connection. Broadband access measures the percentage of county residents that have wired broadband available to them (regardless of whether or not they adopt). Finally, locations such as libraries, churches, and hospitals fall into the measurement of community anchor institutions. These institutions may be places community members go to take advantage of free broadband internet – or they may simply be places that help define “community.” Using county-level measures for each of these, we aggregated them for all non-metropolitan areas in each state. This way we could answer a simple question by using each state as a data point: As rural broadband goes up, what happens to civic engagement?

The answer is that, generally, there was a positive relationship between higher broadband and certain measures of engagement. But – this relationship mostly held for broadband adoption. The rate of broadband access rarely had any meaningful impact. The charts below show that as rates of rural broadband adoption increase, so do rates of voting in local elections, contacting local public officials, joining a neighborhood group, and discussing politics with friends or family. Interestingly, however, higher broadband adoption also meant less talking with neighbors and less confidence in corporations. The number of community anchor institutions, meanwhile, was positively related to items like talking with neighbors, asking for favors from neighbors, and trusting people in neighborhoods.

3 - bband adoption joining neighborhood group
4 - broadband adoption discussing politics
5 - bband adoption talking w neighbors
6 - bband adoption confidence corporations

Clearly, there are other things that affect how civically engaged a person is. These can include, for example, factors such as education, income, race, and age. We ran an additional analysis using individual-level data (not the state averages from above). This new analysis controlled for factors like education, income, and race. It still found that broadband adoption had a significantly positive impact on several specific measures of civic engagement: contacting public officials, boycotting a company, joining a sports organization, becoming an officer in an organization, and discussing politics with family or friends. There were, however, negative relationships with seeing or hearing from friends, talking with neighbors, and confidence in corporations. Perhaps most importantly, simple “access” didn’t have much of an impact – demonstrating that getting people to actively use the technology is most important for getting them civically engaged.

table 1 - bband after controlling other measures
This table shows positive and negative correlations between broadband adoption, broadband access, and the presence of community anchor institutions (CAIs) such as libraries.

So, since there is a connection between broadband adoption and civic engagement, how can we use this to increase the well-being of our rural communities? Historically, U.S. broadband policy has focused on creating infrastructure to increase broadband access. More recently, we have shifted our focus toward increasing adoption (including changes to the federal Lifeline program and the new ConnectHome initiative. Digital inclusion advocates argue that encouraging adoption takes more than simple financial incentives, and emphasize the importance of having a social support system when learning about technology. Further, a new report from the Pew Internet Research Center suggests that as many as 52% of American adults are relatively unprepared to use digital tools in lifelong learning.  Encouraging broadband adoption, both through policy and local support systems, can in turn lead to more civic engagement across rural America.

Brian Whitacre is a professor and Jacob Manlove is a Ph.D. student at Oklahoma State University. Their study was recently published in Community Development and is entitled “Broadband and Civic Engagement in Rural Areas: What Matters?”  This work was initially funded by a grant from the Mississippi State University Extension Center for Technology Outreach.

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