Rural Digital Divide

Throughout the previous century and into the 21st, there has been a gradual population shift from rural to urban locales. The jobs just aren’t there anymore. Early on this was dominated in a shift from subsistence farming to a reliance on cash crops. Later, it was driven by the mechanization of farming technology.

This demographic shift was very obvious when looking at life in the Ozarks. Subsistence farming filled the hills and dales. Even in face of the double whammy of the economic collapse of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, families survived. The advent of World War II however, created jobs that hadn’t existed before. The Ozarks saw a huge drop in populations as whole families moved off to work in defense plants.

In addition to the demographic shift to towns and cities, there is also an age shift, with the average age of rural populations increasing. This is entirely understandable as the older folks with jobs in rural areas stay and the youth head to the cities to find employment.

A big step bolstered the success of rural life, rural electrification. President Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1935 which was followed later with legislation creating the Rural Electrification Administration. Were it not for this act life in rural areas would have disappeared even faster. Electrification brought some parity to rural life compared to life in the cities.

As we transition to the age of the internet, there is a new form of disparity between the cities and rural areas. Access to broadband internet is becoming essential to both learn and earn in contemporary society. Increasing numbers of jobs depend absolutely on broadband internet. With quality internet access, many jobs could come back to rural areas. Rural life is inherently attractive to many but there has to be an income source.

The value of broadband internet has been recognized now and even the smallest schools have access. But what about when the children go home? Not so much. The best method for broadband is fiber optic cables but the cost for rolling out the cable is unattractive to commercial entities. Broadband can be delivered via a cell phone signal to many rural areas, but again low population densities mean low income for private investment.

The Ozarks present a particular difficulty because of the topology, deeply cut serpentine valleys mean even more towers are necessary for complete coverage. It is time to consider a significant effort to support bringing broadband internet to rural areas, just like rural electrification. In fact, the electric coops could act to broker the delivery. The poles to string cables are already there. It would require an expansion of the skill set for the coops to manage internet connections, but that in itself would bring jobs back.

It’s time to bridge the digital divide and bring our rural areas into the twenty-first century. Children at home need access to high speed internet. Modern home security systems require connectivity, even many personal health notification devices for the elderly require access.

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