Rural Broadband

Posted on 01/31/2011 at 12:00 AM by Christa Hartsook

Blog article written by Dr. Michael Boland, E. Fred Koller endowed chair in agribusiness management and information technology, University of Minnesota.

My home county in Minnesota recently received a USDA Rural Development planning grant with matching funds for the development of a rural broadband network. It comes with some controversy as some residents wonder about the costs and what it will mean to the local community while others, like me, are very excited. The county relies heavily on tourism and many believe this will benefit business. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 authorized and appropriated billions of dollars for rural America to improve broadband access. The legislation has been compared to the rural electrification and rural telephone acts of 1936 and 1949, respectively. The big issue is what adoption rates will look like. Unlike electricity (for which there was a direct application inside the home as well as in the barn), broadband may not be vital to an older population. Some studies have found that older consumers believe that broadband is just a substitute for a telephone and do not see a use in their business or home. Thus, adoption rates may not be as high as some might believe.

The bigger question becomes how broadband technology will be used. Delivery of movie and television content? Social networking? Email? Telephone? Business services such as online reservations?

As a college professor, my perception is that college students believe that broadband has become an integral part of their lives, especially for Internet access. And having reliable cell phone coverage is a necessity for them. If they choose to live and work in a rural community, they will demand broadband. The key question becomes whether an aging rural population will utilize the Internet to justify all of the expenses in bringing broadband to rural America. Social networking has become one tool that is increasing usage and requires broadband because of all the media content being employed.

Flowtown (www.flowtown.com) does research on social networking usage and reports that the average age of a Facebook user is 38 years old. Many of my students tell me they use Facebook as much as they do email.  Flowtown also found that the fastest growing population segment is 45 to 54 years of age. My mother, who 71 years of age and home-bound, just built a Facebook entry and my siblings post photos and videos of grandchildren for her to enjoy. My neighbors, who are retired in our rural county, use social networking to keep track of their grandkids located across the United States.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project interviewed more than 2,300 adults in November and December 2010 and found that “that 75% of all American adults are active in some kind of voluntary group or organization and Internet users are more likely than others to be active - 80% of Internet users participate in groups, compared with 56% of non-Internet users. Moreover, social media users are even more likely to be active - 82% of social network users and 85% of Twitter users are group participants.” 

Kristen Purcell, the research director at Pew Internet and co-author of the report, was quoted as saying that “One of the striking things in these data is how purposeful people are as they become active with groups. Many enjoy the social dimensions of involvement, but what they really want is to have impact. Most have felt proud of a group they belong to in the past year and just under half say they accomplished something they couldn’t have accomplished on their own.”

Aaron Smith, senior research specialist at Pew Internet and another co-author of the report, noted that “It is important to note that 25% of American adults are not active in any of the groups we addressed. They often report they are time-stressed or have health or other issues that limit their ability to be involved. And about a fifth of them say that lack of access to the Internet is a hindrance. Even in its absence, the Internet seems to be a factor in the reality of how groups perform in the digital age.”

It is clear that social networking is increasing and has become a very useful way for groups to engage with each other. How does that impact rural areas? The traditional dynamic has been personal contacts through a variety of methods including church, post offices, and coffee shops. Can social networking replace that? The U.S. Postal Service would like to close thousands of small post offices because they are not profitable. Churches lack pastors and rural stores face closure when a long-time owner retires or exits. Can social networking help rural residents stay connected with each other? Obviously, a positive attitude towards technology adoption matter if adoption is to occur.

Land grant universities are increasingly trying to identify ways to use broadband including the National eXtension Initiative which is designed to provide knowledge that was formerly provided by county extension agents and state specialists. The National e-Commerce Extension Initiative provides education to rural entrepreneurs using extension faculty engagement.  Certainly, we can see the uses of broadband in education delivery. These will impact the delivery of education on value-added agriculture and business development. Already, USDA has done on-line workshops for education purposes.

Will social networking increase in rural areas? Uses of social networking include more than just sons and daughters posting baby pictures and videos for their parents or grandparents. Employees use it to track college classmates and maintain some level of social interaction in rural areas. Military serving overseas use the technology to communicate with families. There is little doubt that a family who settled the Great Plains 100 years ago would be surprised today to be able to learn that they could stay in contact with their families overseas where they came from.

What will happen in my county?  Only time will tell but I believe that just as the rural electrification act helped turn the lights on in rural areas, broadband will help residents stay connected socially and improve business development in rural areas.

Some additional resources

Pew Internet and American Life Project. (2010). “Home Broadband Adoption.” Available online.

U.S. Department of Commerce. (2010). “Exploring the Digital Nation: Home Broadband Internet Adoption in the United States.” Economics and Statistics Administration and National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Available online.

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