Friday, June 16, 2017

WSJ on the digital divide between rural and urban

The Wall Street Journal's  Jennifer Levitz and Valerie Bauerlein reported yesterday from Caledonia, Missouri on the state of broadband in rural America.  The story, part of the WSJ's "One Nation, Divisible" series, is headlined, "Rural America is Stranded in the Dial-Up Age." The story is chock-full of data points about the consequences of lack of broadband in rural places, including these:
  • Rural counties with more households connected to broadband had higher incomes and lower unemployment than those with fewer (based on a 2015 study)
  • In St. Louis, speeds as fast as 100 Mbps start at about $45 a month, according to BroadbandNow, a data research company. Statewide, an estimated 61% of rural residents lack broadband access.
  • About 39% of the U.S. rural population, or 23 million people, lack access to broadband internet service—defined as “fast” by the Federal Communications Commission—compared with 4% of the urban residents. 
It also features lots of anecdotes about how the lack of broadband is holding rural folks back in the digital era.  Here's one of my favorites, which features an agricultural issue.  Indeed, one Caledonia resident who the authors keep returning to is a goat and sheep farmer named Jeanne Wilson Johnson.  She regularly drives four miles to a gas station for better Internet connectivity:
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. 
The story also features an anecdote regarding public safety:  
At the county’s 911 center, dispatch director William Goad sometimes loses his connection to the state emergency system. That means dispatchers can’t check license plates for police or relay arrest-warrant information.

As severe thunderstorms approached in late February, Mr. Goad tried to keep watch using an internet connection sputtering at speeds too slow to reliably map a tornado touchdown or track weather patterns.
Other illustrations are about other businesses (a boot factory) and healthcare and hospitals.  Given these illustrations of the need, why--as Mr. Goad asks--we have not solved this problem:
We drill for oil above the Arctic Circle in some of the worst conditions known to man.  Surely we can drop broadband across the rural areas in the Midwest.
The journalists who wrote this story explain what is probably obvious:
Rural America can’t seem to afford broadband: Too few customers are spread over too great a distance. 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.
And this reminds me of a statement by former FCC economist Michael Katz back in 2009:
Other people don't like to say bad things about rural areas. So I will. 
The notion that we should be helping people who live in rural areas avoid the costs that they impose on society … is misguided, from an efficiency point of view and an equity one.
At stake then was $7.2 billion investment (as part of Obama's stimulus package) in broadband access for "underserved" and rural areas.

This story is well worth a read in its entirety, and I'm happy to see a national newspaper attending to these issues.

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