Friday, June 16, 2017

The lack of fast internet in many rural areas is both a cause and a symptom of their problems

The Wall Street Journal, which recently said rural America had gone from being "breadbasket to basket case," has turned its attention to the lack of fast internet service in many rural areas.

"In many rural communities, where available broadband speed and capacity barely surpass old-fashioned dial-up connections, residents sacrifice not only their online pastimes but also chances at a better living," reporters Jennifer Levitz and Valerie Bauerlein write. "In a generation, the travails of small-town America have overtaken the ills of the city, and this technology disconnect is both a cause and a symptom."

They explain: "Counties without modern internet connections can’t attract new firms, and their isolation discourages the enterprises they have: ranchers who want to buy and sell cattle in online auctions or farmers who could use the internet to monitor crops. Reliance on broadband includes any business that uses high-speed data transmission, spanning banks to insurance firms to factories."

A 2015 study in Oklahoma, Mississippi and Texas showed that "Rural counties with more households connected to broadband had higher incomes and lower unemployment than those with fewer," the Journal reports. “Having access to broadband is simply keeping up,” said Sharon Strover, a University of Texas professor who studies rural communication. “Not having it means sinking.”

About 39 percent of rural Americans lack access to broadband service that the federal government defines as fast: downloads of 25 megabits per second. The share in urban areas is only 4 percent, the Journal notes. It maps the rate of internet subscriptions by county, and takes a look at Caledonia, Mo., 86 miles southwest of St. Louis, which the story uses as its prime example of poor internet service:
"Rural America can’t seem to afford broadband: Too few customers are spread over too great a distance," the reporters write. "The gold standard is fiber-optic service, but rural internet providers say they can’t invest in door-to-door connections with such a limited number of subscribers. . . . Smartphone service is available but has coverage gaps and isn’t always reliable in rural communities such as Washington County. Even when it works, cell service can’t match the speed or capacity of broadband."

“You just can’t compete,” Brian Whitacre, an agricultural economics professor at Oklahoma State University, told the Journal. “Running a business with a smartphone is not going to happen.”

One source of help is rural cooperatives like the Co-Mo Electric Cooperative of Central Missouri, which are getting more interested in the business and are now encouraged to get into it in states like Tennessee, which limit municipal broadband to city limits or ban it altogether. Co-Mo internet chairman John Schuster told the Journal that the service is doing well, but “The definition of making money for me and for a shareholder from AT&T is going to be two different things.”

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, appointed by President Trump, is a native of rural Kansas. He says one of his priorities is rural broadband, and it should be included in Trump's anticipated $1 trillion infrastructure package. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told a House committee meeting on the rural economy last month, “This is square on the radar scope of the president.” Also, Pai "would like to boost subsidies, rewrite regulations to cut red tape and accelerate the FCC’s own processes, he said, which have slowed access to rural broadband," the Journal reports.

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