At one point during my freshman year the fiber optic wire that provided Oxford with high speed Internet service was accidentally damaged during a construction project causing an outage that lasted a few hours. Internet speeds crashed to abysmally low speeds, and some professors even canceled classes. This incident reminded me how critical having a reliable connection to the Internet and a computer is to function as a society today.
However, for close to 10 percent of all Americans and 40 percent of rural Americans, living with incredibly slow or no Internet service at all is a daily reality that is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. This, “digital divide” between rural and urban correlates with the lack of economic investment, high rates of unemployment and brain drain of promising youth in America’s poorest regions like Appalachia, the rural South and Native American reservations.
When talking about access to the Internet, the term “broadband” is used as the Federal Communications Commission standard for connectivity. The most recently updated definition of the term came in 2015 and is defined as 25 megabits per second (mbps) of download speed and 3 mbps of upload speed. With this rate, users can comfortably stream videos, download large files, send messages, etc. For reference, my apartment in Oxford sees average speeds of 115 mbps; median speeds in one of the poorest counties in Ohio, Vinton County, hover around 6.5 mbps.
The cause of the divide chiefly comes from differences population density; metropolitan areas give more monetary return on investment to Internet service providers from laying wires than rural areas do with simply less people to pay for the service. This increases the cost of paying for broadband in rural areas that is further exacerbated by relics of public policy that allow telecommunication companies to operate as monopolies. While there are wireless alternatives, like home satellites, those too are often too prohibitively expensive to install and maintain for the economically impoverished.
This leaves rural Americans in a vicious cycle of disinvestment. With poor Internet connectivity, economic growth stalls and residents who can afford to leave, the area becomes even less desirable for providers to lay wires.
This isn’t a new for rural America. Deficiencies in privately controlled electricity infrastructure occurred for the same reasons and caused the same problems in high cost and low private interest with electricity. In this case, however, the Roosevelt Administration stepped in to fill the void and created programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Administration which worked to increase rural electrification rates from about 10 percent in 1936 to nearly 100 percent just 15 years later.
For a modern model of New Deal Era rural electrification, U.S. Policymakers should look to Finland. The Finnish Communications Regulatory Authority made broadband access a legal right for all citizens in 2009, requiring telecommunications companies to provide the service and allowed companies to utilize government subsidies for the installation in remote or unprofitable areas. In 2017, about half of the country, roughly the same population density as Vinton County, has access to ultra high speed broadband Internet service that averages above 100 mbps. In part due to the Finnish government’s commitment to broadband access, investment in technology related industries has quadrupled since 2010.
With so many politicians vying for the critical swing state rural voter, few to none talk about broadband access for rural Americans. Just as economic activity concentrated along strong infrastructure systems in the past, so too will it continue to concentrate in areas with fast and reliable Internet access. With cheap land, far from the expensive and crowded coastal cities and stale labor markets, desperate to find new employment opportunities, rural America is prime for a long awaited economic boom. We just need to spend a little money and a little effort.