Sunday, August 3, 2008

Will closing the digital divide solve rural America's problems -- at least some of them?

A couple of panels at the Rural Sociological Society's Annual Meeting last week discussed different aspects of the internet and communication technologies, including their potential to enhance rural livelihoods. This is an issue to which I've given some passing thought, often when prompted by a news item about some use of technology to provide services -- from distance learning to mental health support -- in rural communities. (In Japan, broadband is even used to facilitate prenatal care in rural areas. According to a story last year in the NYT, "pregnant women are examined remotely by obstetricians using real-time data transmitted to the doctors’ cellphones. When the doctors judge that a patient is about to go into labor, the woman heads to the nearest city with a maternity ward.") The recent Carsey Institute report, Place Matters, in its recommendations for rural communities in the U.S., notes the need for "advanced communications technology" in all rural places.

The prospect of broadband for all of the United States, including rural areas, was discussed Friday afternoon on NPR in a segment comparing Obama and McCain regarding their "technology outlook." One expert who was interviewed for the program indicated that the market was unlikely to resolve this issue in a way that serves rural communities because the economies of scale simply are not present. This economy-of-scale issue is, of course, a familiar one for those who study rural places' needs for services of all types.

So, the question becomes: what government incentives are appropriate to ensure that rural communities get this critical piece of infrastructure to make them and their workforces competitive in a global economy, while also opening up the possibility that many types of services can be provided to rural residents via broadband? According to the NPR report, Obama is more likely to support the sort of government subsidies that could serve rural Americans in this critical way.

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