The Importance of Bringing Broadband to the Heartland

Sunflower fields near Akaska, South Dakota

Sunflower fields near Akaska, South Dakota Michael Grass / Route Fifty

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Only ubiquitous connectivity will unleash the economic potential of rural America.

One division facing our polarized nation is the rural-urban divide. More than 50 percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas in 1910; by 2010, that figure had fallen to less than 20 percent.

This shift has led to significant cultural, political and economic differences. More rural Americans live in poverty or with a disability than do urban Americans. And while rural Americans are more likely to be business owners or homeowners than those who live in cities, they are far less likely to find a job or pursue higher education.

These are significant gaps—but technological innovation and broadband connectivity are increasingly helping to bridge them, giving Americans who live in the country many of the same opportunities and resources available to city dwellers.

Airbnb is a great example of how online platforms can be leveraged in rural areas to grow local economies. The number of active Airbnb hosts in rural areas has gone up 1,800 percent in the last five years according to a recent Airbnb report, and rural areas in 41 states experienced 100 percent year-over-year growth. Almost 20 percent of Airbnb listings are in rural areas, versus only 12.5 percent of hotel rooms—opening up new economic opportunities in places with otherwise limited resources. And rural Airbnb hosts make on average as much, if not more, than urban hosts. All told, rural hosts have made $494 million between February 2016 and February 2017.

It’s an exciting development—and one that will continue as tech innovation expands from coast to coast. Drones, for instance, will bring significant benefits to various rural industries. A recent PwC report predicts a global market value of $4.4 billion in mining and $32.4 billion in agriculture through the incorporation of drones into key processes such as analyzing soil, assessing the health of crops and drainage.

And both drones and self-driving cars can help reduce the difficulties of distance, making it easier not only for rural areas to participate in e-commerce by lowering the cost of shipping, but also for rural Americans to get vital medical attention. European researchers recently found that drones were able to get defibrillators to people experiencing cardiac arrest faster than ambulances. Drones can also deliver prescription medication to those who live far from a pharmacy or are housebound. Self-driving vehicles will be able to connect people with disabilities and older adults in rural areas with their local economies and improve their access to medical care.

Tech also has important implications for the rural job market. Code.org found more than 500,000 computing jobs available in the U.S., but only 43,000 computer science graduates available to take them in 2016. Thanks to online education, students across the country can acquire many of the skills needed to succeed in the job market—no matter where they’re based. And employers are not restricted to urban areas or coastal states when looking for top talent. Teleworking means that the best talent can come from—and continue to work in—America’s heartland.

Indeed, we’re already starting to see a shift in the heartland: Missouri is a perfect example—its broadband speeds increased by 57 percent between 2014 and 2016, as did broadband speeds in 28 other states, according to CTA’s Innovation Scorecard, an annual ranking of states' innovation friendly policies.

If we want this trend of rural innovation to continue, we need further investment in broadband infrastructure. Only ubiquitous connectivity will unleash the economic potential of rural areas and revitalize the rural job market.

Projects are underway to expand rural broadband access. Microsoft’s Rural Airband Initiative, for example, calls for maximizing unused TV white space spectrum to bring broadband to 80 percent of underserved rural communities. Instead of using expensive fiber optic cables, Microsoft’s bold plan uses empty channels between TV stations to deliver connectivity to more than 20 million rural Americans at much lower costs.

Investing in broadband is an opportunity for President Trump—who has repeatedly expressed interest in investing in rural communities, jobs and infrastructure—and congressional Republicans to support the communities that elected them. It’s also a chance for a genuine bipartisan moment, where both parties can come together and support programs for all Americans—in red states and in blue states, among liberals, independents and conservatives, and in the city and the country alike.

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