In my recent blog posts, I have been discussing ways that citizens can communicate with government officials through the Internet, social media, and wireless technology to solve problems in their communities and to effect public policy. Using technology for civic engagement, however, should not be limited to communications with elected or appointed government officials. One of the themes I have sought to address across my series of posts – and will discuss in more detail today – is that citizen-to-citizen communication through digital technologies for civic purposes is extremely important in building healthy communities. This is particularly true in rural areas. Improving digital connectivity in rural areas will help people communicate more effectively with civic institutions, such as schools and libraries, and commercial entities, such as commodities markets, that effect residents daily lives and economic well-being.
Earlier this year I met with Tom Koutsky, Chief Policy Counsel for Connected Nation, a non-profit working to “accelerate broadband availability in underserved areas and increase broadband use in all areas.” When I told Mr. Koutsky that I wanted to learn more about the role of digital technologies in fostering civic engagement in rural areas, he told me that “you can’t develop one size fits all for non-urban areas. Not all rural communities have the same challenges, even if they are clearly different from urban areas.”
For example, Connected Nation evaluated several South Carolina counties and found that overall the three main challenges were access (i.e. the number of providers), adoption (encompassing digital literacy and computer training) and the lack of telecommunications infrastructure linking interested industry or government users to the network. The combinations of those challenges, however, varied by county. In Saluda County, Connected Nation found a lack of infrastructure and industry, but solid training programs. In Greenwood County, backhaul infrastructure was in place, but not enough providers were operating.
There are a wide variety of organizations seeking to increase broadband adoption in rural areas and the engagement in civic and economic life that follows, including the American Farm Bureau, Microsoft, the United States Cattlemen’s Association, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Communications Workers of America, and many telecommunications providers serving rural areas. Mr. Koutsky told me that these organizations focus on building “one-to-many” relationships by forming partnerships between “anchor systems” – valued organizations with built-in constituencies in local communities – and the key civic institutions in the community, for instance, libraries and school systems. One project Mr. Koutsky mentioned, for example, is a statewide digital literacy effort with fifteen to twenty Boys Clubs in Tennessee. In addition, churches in rural areas are opening technology centers and community centers are hosting job-training programs, designed to teach adults digital literacy.
Individuals and organizations working to improve broadband adoption are going directly to citizens because the governmental entities supporting broadband adoption vary greatly from state to state and can be difficult for citizens to identify on their own. For example, broadband adoption programs are supported through Connect Texas, which resides in the Texas Department of Agriculture and its Rural Affairs team. The State Librarian is the leader on broadband policy for Nevada’s seventeen counties. In Michigan, Connected Nation works with the state’s Public Service Commission.
Connected Nation’s approach to assisting rural communities in identifying solutions that allow them to use broadband to spur innovation and civic participation is similar to the process that I discussed in an earlier post regarding Memphis’s efforts to revitalize several of its neighborhoods. Connected Nation evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of rural communities by sending local planning teams to build data-driven profiles of each area. This approach allows Connected Nation to tailor broadband adoption solutions to specific communities and community leaders to measure their areas according to a common framework – the National Broadband Plan.
Connected Nation’s community facilitators help community leaders share information about their needs and make plans as to how broadband can be deployed around the civic and economic drivers in the community such as agricultural facilities, industrial plants, schools, hospitals, government buildings, and tourist attractions. Once community planners have, for example, mapping data on where broadband providers are already operating in the community, local governments can make better-informed decisions about where economic development such as a new subdivision or hospital should be located. Where, for example, additional wireless infrastructure is needed, the various stakeholders such as the water company with a tall water tower, the wireless provider seeking a site for an antenna, the school superintendent researching potential locations for a new school, and farmers whose equipment relies on GPS, have an opportunity to discuss their high speed Internet needs and work cooperatively. In addition, telecommunications providers will learn where the opportunities are for potential future build-out and where their competitors are investing in facilities. Mr. Koutsky suggested that this type of information will “allow the market to shape itself.”
What happens in a rural community with affordable access to wireline and wireless broadband? Its residents in the agricultural industry use modern, self-guided farm equipment, such as tractors that are dependent on GPS systems and satellites. Farmers have the ability to track commodities prices and conduct transactions through wireline broadband connections and through wireless devices. Parents and teachers can communicate about a child’s education through e-mail. Students can bring their own devices back and forth from school and use the Internet to bridge the gap between class and home. Over the long-term, this type of access will be critical to the survival of small communities as they are better able to compete with urban areas to keep their own young people and attract investment and new residents from elsewhere.