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Increasing Internet Access Touted As Bridge To Rural-Urban Divide

File photo / Erica Hunzinger
Harvest Public Media
Rural areas often use slow cellular or wired internet access, and some places don't have any access at all

Donald Trump won two-thirds of the vote in rural areas in the last two presidential elections — highlighting what some see as a growing divide between rural and urban America.

Now, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank is suggesting the Biden administration look to expand broadband internet access in rural areas to help bridge that divide.

The Brookings Institution’s policy brief, Reimaging Rural Policy: Organizing Federal Assistance To Maximize Rural Prosperity, proposes a well-funded and streamlined effort to extend broadband access across the country.

Most rural areas don’t have such access because private companies do not find them profitable.

Tony Pipa, the lead author of the report, said too many people think the way to take care of rural areas is with huge agricultural subsidies. Pipa said that the sector makes up only 6% of employment in rural areas.

“Much more of a service economy is becoming important in rural areas, much more small business and entrepreneurialism. And you can’t be connected to the way the economy works right now if you don’t have literally the bandwidth to be connected,” Pipa said.

Sarah McKee is the kind of rural resident Pipa was thinking about in his report. She lives on a county highway in rural Phelps County, a few miles outside St. James, a town with a population of 4,000.

McKee is a nurse-practitioner working on a graduate degree in nurse-midwifery. Her husband is also working on a graduate degree, and their two kids are home doing remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

McKee said her internet access can’t keep up with that demand.

“It’s so slow that when I asked some IT friends, it’s actually measuring slower than a dial-up connection would be,” McKee said.

Her family has to take turns with one person on at a time to not overwhelm the signal. Even when they do that, there are times of crisis.

“I had some classes as well that were done via video chat, and it would often cut out and freeze. That happened during an exam,” McKee said.

McKee had to drive into town and find a free WiFi hotspot to finish that exam. It’s so bad the McKees have considered moving to somewhere with better internet connectivity.

Pipa said there are a lot of rural residents like the McKees, and the Biden administration has an opportunity to reach them.

“Rural broadband expansion would be a sign that the government is shifting from a mindset of assistance to rural areas to one of investment,” Pipa said. “Where they’re taking a chance and saying we can lay down some investment in local leadership and in local institutions.”

The idea has support from experts in the field. Casey Canfield, a professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology who studies rural internet access, said the Brookings report has merit.

She specifically pointed to the part of the proposal that suggests rural broadband expansion focus on homes instead of businesses because it would support the growth areas of remote working and self-employment.

“That type of employment really benefits from having broadband access. And if we think about providing broadband access to homes, that might really help facilitate that kind of job creation,” Canfield said.

The need for expanded broadband access in rural areas isn’t new, but Canfield said the onset of the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated it and created an opportunity.

“All of a sudden, broadband access that was kind of annoying, and not ideal, became completely inadequate because there was just so much more people were trying to do from home in terms of education and their jobs,” Canfield said.

Christel Gollnick, who runs a communications business from her home about an hour outside Kansas City, where the internet access is very poor, said if improved broadband leads to more jobs and a better quality of life, it will open some eyes.

“And that’s from someone who’s not political one way or another. I’m looking at the interconnectedness and what it really means to people. It’s less about the personalities of the people in office than it is about making sure we have the resources we need as a country,” Gollnick said.

Four years isn’t a lot of time to make significant and noticeable changes in rural access to the internet, Pipa said. But he contends that if the Biden administration moves quickly, funds programs well and cuts the bureaucracy to implement them, it will send a strong message.

Rural broadband is already on the Biden administration’s radar. Expanding broadband or even wireless broadband via 5G to all Americans is a bullet point on the Biden-Harris “Plan for Rural America.”

But it’s one of 10 points on one plan at a time when dozens of priorities need a lot of attention — and money.

STLPR's Rolla Correspondent Discusses The Potential Impacts Of Better Rural Internet Access
Concerns about the rural-urban divide are a common refrain in 21st-century America. In his latest feature for St. Louis Public Radio, reporter Jonathan Ahl digs into one big idea for a solution to that issue and more: better rural internet access. He talks with host Sarah Fenske about the possibilities.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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