Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Broadband has more impact in places where local leaders encourage community involvement

The federal government announced this week that initial funds for increasing broadband Internet access could be available as early as April, but the plan still lacks detail. A study by Sharon Strover, a rural broadband expert at the University of Texas, called "Closing the Rural Broadband Gap," suggests that two details not to be overlooked are local leadership and community involvement. Without those, rural broadband may flop.

"Broadband providers in four rural counties were given the same federal grant, but the results were remarkably different," Bill Bishop reports on the study for the Daily Yonder. In Pikeville, Ky., the mayor took an active role in implementing the grant. "The Kentucky effort targeted poorer and less educated residents and the program worked," Bishop writes. "Among the four counties, Pike County registered the strongest gains with older adults and those with less than a high school education. By 2008, more than half of those in Pike County with only a high school diploma were using broadband."

In Texas, oversight of the grants was lax. "In the two Texas counties, there was little community involvement in the broadband project," Bishop writes. "In one county, the project fell apart entirely." These examples lead point out that getting the grants is merely a step in the process. For broadband to really have an effect on rural communities leadership, oversight and community involvement are requisites. "My biggest reaction to the stimulus package is that they really need to have a clue regarding what the communities need and want," Strover said. "And they need to have evaluations."

There were themes common to all four counties. Broadband use increased in each county, as did use of Internet connections at public libraries. Home broadband users were also more likely than non-users to plan further education. There were some negative consequences to increased broadband access as well. "One of the more interesting — and counterintuitive — findings in the report is that broadband connections may spur outmigration from rural areas," Bishop notes. At least there was "a strong correlation between subscribing to these services and intention to leave," Strover told him. (Read more)

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