Microsoft wants to connect rural areas to better digital service. It’s a welcome initiative from an industry that, aside from locating some data centers in the hinterlands, tends to focus on metro areas. But the economic divide is long-standing and won’t be easily bridged.
When I read that Microsoft had an ambitious plan to bring broadband internet to rural America, my first thought was “please start in Seattle.”
It’s not as if much of this technopolis enjoys the world-class digital connections one would expect. Nor does most of the nation, which is dependent on the whims of monopolies or a few big players. The United States enjoyed only the world’s 12th fastest internet speed last year. In mobile internet speed, we’re No. 28.
Still, a considerable urban-rural digital divide exists.
According to a report last year from the Brookings Institution, 39 percent of rural areas lacked broadband with decent speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps). That compares with 4 percent for urban areas.
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Among the consequences: Many rural schools “lack access to high-speed fiber and pay more than twice as much for bandwidth. In a growing world of personalized online curricula, internet-based research, and online testing, this severely restricts rural students from educational opportunities their urban counterparts may enjoy.”
Lack of quality internet also hinders people from reaching government services, which are increasingly online. The situation also affects the economic fortunes of rural areas and small towns.
Agriculture is more high-tech than many city dwellers might realize, and also needs better internet.
As the blog Successful Farming stated last year, “Broadband is the backbone of the innovative technological tools farmers are using today, and it is the key to unlocking the next wave of productivity.”
Another report by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration showed 69 percent of rural residents using the internet vs. 75 percent of urban residents.
As my colleague Matt Day explained, Microsoft proposes using a technology to put data communication for the internet on unused television frequencies. The company itself would invest to connect 2 million by 2022, partnering with internet providers.
Microsoft President Brad Smith was in Washington, D.C., earlier this month hoping to attract other industry players to the concept, a $10 billion public-private effort to bring high-speed internet to 23 million Americans in rural areas.
“One thing we’ve concluded is just how important broadband is for all kinds of things,” Smith said. Broadband “is about, increasingly, the necessities of life.”
The initiative is bold and visionary. It’s realistic, seeking partnerships in an age where the federal government has stepped back from an active role in directly funding infrastructure. And it’s not bad for business, opening markets for Microsoft technology.
The plan also faces challenges. Critics pointed out that rural areas lack the economies of scale found in cities, so many device-makers would take a pass. Television broadcasters don’t want to give up the unused “white spaces” and claim the internet might interfere with other channels.
Although a step in the right direction, fast rural broadband won’t lead us into the broad, sunlit uplands of Thomas Friedman’s “The World Is Flat.”
Among the ideas in The New York Times columnist’s 2005 best-seller was technology, especially the internet, as a great equalizer of opportunity. It allowed work done in the world’s great business centers to be done anywhere, even presumably rural and small-town America.
The future couldn’t have turned out more different. “The world is spiky,” as urban scholar Richard Florida says. Many of Friedman’s “flatteners,” including technology, made successful places more successful (Seattle is a prime example). Americans have been disproportionately moving from rural areas to cities for more than a century. Recent trends have likely accelerated it.
Meanwhile, poverty and lack of opportunity are often concentrated in rural America. One of the explanations of President Donald Trump’s base is that the rural white working class is angry over its economic straits (I think the anger is more cultural, but no matter).
As of 2015, the average poverty rates in nonmetropolitan areas was 17.2 percent vs. 14.3 percent for metros. A past age of greatness may be exaggerated. In 1959, the nonmetro poverty rate was almost 35 percent. It came down, thanks to Great Society programs.
Analyses of intergenerational economic mobility also show that it’s difficult for the children of the less well-off to move ahead in many rural counties. This is particularly true in the South and Southwest — but also in a few counties in the Northwest.
For example, Grays Harbor County had a 16 percent poverty rate (13.5 percent in Seattle) and May unemployment rate of 6.9 percent (King, 3.1 percent).
According to a deep analysis by the bipartisan Economic Innovation Group, more than 60 percent of Grays Harbor County’s population lived in “distressed” ZIP codes. These were ones with the greatest economic misery according to seven indicators. The “distress score” was 81.8. Statewide in Washington, only 8 percent of the population lived in distressed ZIP codes.
Trump became the first GOP presidential candidate to win Grays Harbor County since Herbert Hoover. But almost 80 percent of the 71,628 residents are non-Hispanic whites. I am skeptical that Trump will do anything to help the county’s extraction-based economy.
Better broadband? It can’t hurt. Grays Harbor has an economic development council working to attract business.
On the other hand, some predominantly rural areas do fairly well. It helps if they have at least one decent-sized town. A college, resort area or still-viable industry is important. So are good schools, less segregation, more tolerance and federal investment.
In Benton, Franklin and Asotin counties of South Central and Southeast Washington, zero percent live in distressed ZIP codes. The first two include the Kennewick-Richland metropolitan area, and all three have rich agricultural land.
Counties such as Grays Harbor face challenges, including relative isolation and dependence on sectors that aren’t coming back. Incentives in Washington are limited unless you’re a big aerospace employer.
But they can recruit targeted industries, seek state aid in the search and raise their profiles by building relationships with corporate site selectors.
It’s also important for such areas, and whichever state they’re a part of, to focus on retaining existing employers.
There’s no quick fix for the longstanding ills of rural America. But improving internet service should be a priority. Good on Microsoft for pushing it.