Broadband access enables individuals to participate in a connected society and has been transforming lives with easier access to virtually everything from health care and education to farming operations and government services. Yet even though being connected to the broadband seems an imperative goal for today’s society, not all Americans are able to enjoy its economic and social benefits. In particular, rural populations have been marginalized in terms of gaining access to the broadband.
On November 18, I had the pleasure of attending a thought-provoking discussion about bridging the broadband gap between rural and urban areas. The event was co-hosted by Foundation for Rural Service and Smart Rural Community, an initiative of NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, and held at the Capitol Visitors’ Center. Following welcoming remarks by Jessica Golden, Executive Director of Foundation for Rural Service, Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) directed the audience’s attention to the essential goal of bridging the broadband gap between rural and urban areas.
Lisa Mensah, Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, delivered the keynote speech in which she described governmental efforts to expand broadband opportunities linking rural and urban areas and emphasized how strategic and collective efforts to increase broadband connectivity in rural areas can lead to national prosperity. In follow-up, Joshua Seidemann, Vice President of Policy at NTCA presented findings of his recent study, “Beyond Rural Walls: Identifying Impact and Interdependencies Among Rural and Urban Spaces,” facilitating the panel discussion that followed.
Based on questions that addressed the impact of broadband investment and use and interdependencies between rural and urban regions, three panelists, Drs. Charles Fluharty (Rural Policy Institute), Norman Jacknis (Intelligent Community Forum) and Sharon Strover (University of Texas at Austin) detailed broadband gaps between rural and urban areas, the reality of how rural populations are deprived of benefits that broadband connections can bring, and discussed what can and should be done to close the broadband gap and reduce detrimental effects.
Other issues highlighted during the panel discussion included the difficulty of measuring the long-term outcome of broadband deployment, significance of the collective impact model that considers interdependencies between rural and urban areas, re-envisioning the role of libraries in this transition, the necessity of informing and persuading decision makers and grabbing media attention in appropriate ways. In particular, Dr. Strover and other panelists emphasized the important role that libraries can contribute, especially in rural areas, as anchoring institutions, to facilitate a synergistic effect for connecting rural and urban locales.
In closing remarks, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) emphasized the importance of continued policy efforts to close the broadband gap. It is worth noting that while policy initiatives that promise to close the broadband gap deserve further review, enabling broadband connectivity is only one part of the equation. As the panel pointed out, managing human capital and increasing digital competency should not be overlooked. If individuals do not know how to take advantage of broadband technology, then they will likely remain unconnected and isolated from others in the digital world.