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Can Broadband Reshape Rural Development?

By Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist

If you are a student of history and commerce, you recognize a clear pattern to the development of cities. In the beginning, most of them were founded on rivers — think Paris and the Seine, London and the Thames, New York and the Hudson.

Then railroads took over from rivers as a catalyst for development. In the United States, Chicago and Denver owe their existence to the proximity of tracks, rather than proximity to water. Thus began the transition from natural to industrial.

Today we are in the middle of the transition from the industrial to the digital, based on the rapid deployment of broadband technology. What will be the first major city based on digital technology? Is it Silicon Valley, in California? Is it Bombay? Is it Shanghai?

This is the first time that infrastructure is neither natural nor industrial, which rewrites the equations by which population centers are created. What does this transition mean for rural areas?

What Hath Broadband Wrought?

Indeed, most tech-savvy countries have programs in place for rural broadband. Europe has put in place new rules for rural broadband, as has England. Ditto for China and India. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included funding for the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), which is designed to develop and expand broadband services to rural and under-served areas and improve access to broadband by public safety agencies.

Pumping money into infrastructure is one thing; the more important question relates to results. How could broadband potentially change rural areas? Interestingly, the UK’s Guardian newspaper polled experts last month on the social and economic value of rural broadband. The responses were broad-based:

  • It encourages online participate from multiple segments of the community.
  • Social media is an effective tool for bringing together rural and geographically diverse communities.
  • A greater sense of community through online communication opportunities could deter migration to cities.

The poll also asked for advice on improving acceptance. Suggestions included:

  • Make use of community activists to encourage others to get online.
  • Let rural residents develop and carry out broadband policies.
  • Use varied approaches for different members of the community.

Interestingly, the responses focused primarily on the personal and social aspects of online communications, rather than the business aspects.

Pros and Cons About Impact and Uptake

That begs the question: what are the pros and cons of rural broadband investment?

From an environmental standpoint, there is a price to distribute goods across long distances, so there is a benefit to urban density. On the other hand, broadband has the potential to bring greater diversity of economic activity. For instance, if broadband access offers other economic sustenance for family members, other family members may still support rural-specific livelihoods such as farming.

From a social standpoint, families and friends may be further away, but distance no longer equals isolation. With broadband connections bringing telecommuting, videoconferencing, online entertainment, and social networking, citizens can finally overcome the tyranny of distance. People can finally divorce decisions about livelihood from location.

Still, questions dog rural broadband regarding feasibility and uptake. In early May, Australia temporarily suspended its ambitious National Broadband Network because of high potential costs — many relating to bringing broadband to the entire country, rather than just its major cities.

And if you invest in infrastructure in a rural area, is there evidence that it will either retain young people who might otherwise move away, or even attract people who are skilled to use it from other areas of the country?

Or is it possible that people who naturally gravitate to — or stay in — rural areas do so because they want a slower, less-connected lifestyle? Is broadband merely one more thing that they can do without? There are still some significant unanswered questions about the validity of rural broadband, and the question of “if you build it, will they come?” remains unanswered.

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13 Comments.


  1. If you don’t build it then we are in serious trouble. The government needs us all to be digital to save a fortune. the money it saves is our money. We can also save time, money and global footprints if we all have access to an internet connectionthat is fit for purpose. Currently a third of the UK doesn’t. It is vital that public money is used to bring futureproof fibre into the heart of rural areas, where people and businesses will quickly seize the opportunity to build their own networks. It is a shame that all the public money seems to be going to the incumbent to prop up their obsolete phone network and put cabinets in areas of dense population. This sort of scam is fooling the politicians and councillors but it will come back to haunt them in a few years. The rest of the world lays fibre and we keep milking the old copper. Poor old digitalbritain. Trapped in the slow lane for another decade until someone sees the light and stops the telco hype.

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    • David Deans

      @cyberdoyle, thank you for sharing your perspective. Clearly, this is an issue that has many people looking for solutions.

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  2. e-Vermont is bringing digital tools and training to towns to close the digital divide. As year 1 ends, it is hosting the first statewide conference to bring together state and community leaders who are using broadband in creative ways to further community development–schools, business, social services, civic involvement, and more. We are beginning to answer a lot of the questions you raise.
    The purpose is to share what is learned in the initial towns with the rest of Vermont and then rural areas everywhere. More at the website.

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  3. We should be innovating beyond hanging copper off wooden poles, which in many cases are being held up by the copper.

    My proposal is to pay rural communities to work with farmers and contractors to use existing plant to bury fibre in fields, not roads or other difficult way leave scenarios….

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    • David Deans

      @Matt, thanks for sharing that insight.
      Rural areas have some unique roadblocks that could benefit from creative new ideas on how to lower infrastructure costs, and improve right-of-way access, etc.

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  4. Surprised you did not mention what Singapore has achieved?

    Contributions coming in from across EU on this issue and financial models used for public investment in next generation broadband rollout to rural and white spots.

    140 visitors today and broadband 4 all regions “onthemoney” posts – help us by expressing your opinion for free report in June http://ow.ly/523bW

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  5. The assumtions in this piece demonstrate part of the problem; a perception of rural areas as a place worth saving by bringing people together online and connecting them with urban areas – where have you been? The levels of entrepreneurship and innovation in rural areas put them at the very least on a par with their urban counterparts; it’s markets with which they need to be connected, not each other.

    This piece also ignores the urban/rural interface by which the sustainability of rural areas predicates the survival of the urban core. In short, the cost in terms of food miles, carbon and environmental damage increases as people fail to understand the importance of rural villages as hubs of production. Failing to support their infrastructure, economy and sustainability takes away a vital link in the supply chain on which urban areas depend.

    Lets start to think about rurality as something more than a worthy cause which needs social media and video conferencing. Rural areas are the vital link in the supply chain. Ignore them at your peril

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    • David Deans

      @Paul, thank you for sharing your perspective.

      Actually, you may have misread my point about the rural challenges — I wasn’t suggesting that rural areas need “saving,” per se. I was merely making the point that it’s typically more difficult for rural areas to find all the digital economy related resources they need, within their local community of interest. I’ve worked with rural communities in Arizona, but that was some time ago. So, perhaps there are now more villages with a vibrant digital economy, as you suggest.

      Point taken, regarding the need to ultimately be connected to world markets. It seems that community leaders within rural areas are trying their absolute best not to be ignored — that is, if the recent press on this topic is any indication.

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  6. The historical evidence quoted in your artcle answer the question. Yes Broadband can will reshape rural development.

    Take note of the following

    1)That cities are growing out of proportion because they have those amenities not found in rural areas.

    2)The growth of cities comes with problems that accelerate climate change

    3) With broadband in rural areas people can move away from the cities yet remain connected enough to benefit from the amenities, earn a proper living and decelerate climate change.

    4)The difficulties of accessing Broadband to Rural areas is more an issue of Technological choice between wired and wireless broadband.

    5)While wired broad band will continue to compete with other sectors for expensive inputs, wireless broadband is proving to hold the key to rural environments.

    6)Burrowing a leaf from the development of human biology, Wired broadband can be likened to the nervous system that develops earlier in life then stops further development, while wireless broadband can be likened to the endocrine system that develops later in life and continues development until senescence.

    7)Yes broadband can and will reshape Rural development in an increasingly, global,economic and climatic conscious world.

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  7. It is obvious that Rural development will be boosted up if broadband can be ensured. It is the primary key for development though there are many other factors related to it. As example, if people use the broadband connection for watching movie or for online gaming or chatting then it will not be beneficial for them rather it will ruin the culture and working hour will be wasted. So, along with the broadband connection into rural areas, the infrastructure needs to be developed to educate people for proper use of the costly connection.

    Software development, home office, call center, data processing, free lancer services etc. these could be the topics for educating the rural people. All these services can be made available from rural people at a lower cost if they are properly educated. Because, life is economical for rural areas than urban areas.

    In addition to these, if rural area is connected through broadband connection, then decentralization can be done as most of offices are placed in the urban area because of lack of communication facilities in rural areas. It will help to reduce carbon emission, transportation time and cost and help to increase national economic growth.

    On the other hand, everything can be done if it is supported by business case. From business point of view, broadband connection for rural area may not be sustainable case for a business entity who are only for business. But as a part of infrastructure development work, Govt. should take the initiative or large companies can contribute to this project as a part of their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) activities……

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    • David Deans

      @Divine and @Ripon, thank you very much for sharing those thoughts.

      We should continue to follow this topic, going forward, and report on the progress.

      My observation: where there is the collective will, the people that are impacted must work together to find a way — to solve the rural broadband deployment requirement within their own community. Granted, each situation will likely have some common needs, but there may also be other significant issues that must be addressed during the community needs assessment.

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