Uncovering the Value of Rural Broadband

by Derek Murphy, VP, Product Delivery
One of the ongoing challenges for any region is to understand the actual benefits and impacts of public investments in broadband policy and implementation. Understanding and demonstrating impacts is critical as you face mixed and conflicting expectations and scepticism among both the general public and decision makers. One of the most important areas for assessing impacts is in rural areas where the vast majority of “unserved” and “underserved” are located.

I recently came across a research paper published early last year by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), titled “Does Broadband Boost Local Economic Development?” It underscores some of the major problems in understanding the rationale and evidence for investing in rural broadband.

While there is a lack of substantive research on the impacts of rural broadband, PPIC takes an important effort at understand the issue, and is a welcome (hopefully) first step in a concerted effort to understand and enhance the impacts of public investments in rural broadband. Nonetheless, the PPIC paper contains flawed analysis and conclusions. The PPIC’s conclusions understate the impacts of rural broadband investment, undervaluing the potential for leveraging rural broadband for local economic development.

Rural broadband impacts need to be assessed initially at the conceptual and policy level, requiring a framework to understand the range of possible and desired impacts broadband can deliver. The PPIC illustrates just what happens without a strong policy framework. The paper states its objective, “to assess whether policies to raise broadband availability will contribute, as hoped, to local economic development.” The misstep here is that “local economic development” is only defined as “economic growth” in jobs and income. This confusion of economic development with economic growth is a fundamental and frequent mistake in which a historical bias towards never-ending “growth” replaces a more thoughtful understanding of economic development as a sustainable economy that provides income security, a diversity of opportunities to local residents, and a source of external income for the region.

The problem of mixing the two distinct concepts and objectives of growth and development is exacerbated by the lack of analysis of economic challenges faced by most rural areas in North America. There is ample evidence of the long term decline (relative or absolute) of rural areas as these areas lose population due to deaths and outward migration. The policy issue is whether these rural areas can replace all or most of the population that they are losing as they struggle to attract “replacement population.”

The objectives of local economic development vary greatly by the specific circumstances of each rural area. Economic development will often mean something other than “growth.” Economic development can mean a healthy and stable economy that reflects the changing nature of the national and international economy. A core economic development strategy for rural areas is development of strong amenities and services. Consequently, the role of broadband and related services is recognized by the USDA as a key strategy for rural economic development.

SNG’s research shows that broadband strongly influences locational decisions by both businesses and households about whether to stay or where to move. Our research also shows that consumers consider the speed and reliability of their broadband in making these decisions.

The USDA tells us that rural communities need to develop their own distinct strategies based on the costs and benefits that they specifically can expect. High-level analysis of aggregate data is useful in suggesting issues that need to be explored, but it is inappropriate for assessing the possible or likely impacts of improved broadband.

A more constructive approach is to look at communities in similar circumstances and determine the comparative results of their decisions to invest or not invest in enhanced Internet connectivity and competence. This approach is more likely to identify the consequences of not investing in broadband.

Aggregate analysis also doesn’t identify impacts at the level of specific companies, households, or communities. Understanding impacts at the granular level is important in understanding what opportunities realistically exist and what are the barriers to becoming competitive and productive. As demonstrated by SNG’s ground breaking work in North Carolina, obtaining granular data allows data to be turned into actionable intelligence for specific communities and companies. Instead of research drawing questionable conclusions that disempowers people, companies and communities, data gathered at the local level allows for a self-assessment that leads to decisions and actions that are appropriate and realistic.

Another factor for rural broadband not measured recently (in the past 5 years) by the PPIC study was the potential increase in telecommuting or telework as a result of increased broadband availability. SNG’s research shows a strong and positive relationship between broadband availability and teleworking and home-based businesses. Our findings are based on direct surveys in 2010 to over 9,000 rural establishments and 2,350 rural households.

Policy analysts, decision-makers and economic development practitioners need to engage in a meaningful dialogue on the expectations and impacts of broadband investments in rural areas. While investing in broadband in the 1990’s and early 2000s may have been a bold investment in growth, increasingly broadband is becoming a necessary defensive investment, not necessarily an investment in growth. Reliable and competitive broadband allows citizens, businesses and communities the opportunity to remain “competitive” and viable. If leaders and planners can’t get beyond seeing broadband as a “growth strategy,” then broadband in rural areas will more often than not be seen as a failure.

Related readings:

Nonmetropolitan Outmigration Counties: Some Are Poor, Many Are Prosperous – David McGranahan, John Cromartie, and Timothy Wojan, USDA Economic Research Service, 2010.    http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/ERR107/ERR107.pdf

USDA Briefing Room – http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/RuralDevelopment/RuralDevelopment.htm

 Does Broadband Boost Local Economic Development?, Jed Kolko, PPIC January 2010, http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_110JKR.pdf

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