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Apr 26, 2019

The Broadband Challenge

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"It’s like putting a band aid on a neck wound,” said JP, a resident of Lexington, KY, when asked about Kentucky’s plan to build out a broadband network to reach as many rural markets as possible. It’s easy to understand why he was so dismissive of the initiative: Kentucky and some of its neighboring states have far greater challenges facing them, with opioid addiction at the top of the list. As someone living on the East Coast, it’s an issue that I’m vaguely aware of, but the reality is truly brought home as you drive through “historic downtowns” where over half the stores are closed for good and there are very few signs of life. Parts of the “heartland” may have problems that broadband cannot alleviate, as there is only so much technology can solve.

Or is there? While JP was dismissive of the initiative, broadband may be one piece of the solution, potentially. The real question is; what part does broadband play?

One of the goals of the broadband-for-all initiative is to bring jobs back to more rural areas by allowing these residents to work from home. Rather than the traditional migration that has happened – and continues to occur – as people are forced to move to other parts of the state (and beyond) in search of work, the dream is that the work will become more virtual. Jobs bring hope and opportunity, and that can help revitalize the economy. Online support jobs are often cited as the solution. I’m not convinced that it will work, particularly on the near term, or at least not on the scale needed to prove that the broadband initiative has made a substantial dent in the state’s problems. Working remotely in a new job still involves considerable training, and the assumption that the potential workforce is well versed in the use of computers and technology.

But if one takes a longer term view of the potential for broadband, I see more hope and benefit. JP was not convinced regarding the investment being made in broadband, but felt strongly about the need for a vastly improved educational system in Kentucky (which recently ranked as the sixth-least educated state in America, according to WalletHub). To me, the two things are very much interconnected. If you can get broadband into homes, then families have access to greater educational resources. When I think of how my own children learn at school and beyond, I realize just how privileged they are: stuck on math, or need additional insight into the fall of the Roman Empire? There’s a YouTube video for that, and a plethora of other sites and services too. The ability to be interconnected to the literal world is a huge advantage, and one that is missing if there is no broadband available.

Of course, getting the pipe to the street is the first challenge. Getting it into the home, with a computer or other device that allows the school kids to get access is another. That requires additional investment at a government level. You cannot, after all, simply provide the pipe and expect the individual to pay for the rest of it if they are on welfare, or making just enough money to keep food on the table. It’s certainly a challenge, a monumental one at that, and will require collaboration between public and private sectors to solve. But it’s also something that must be done. The coal mines continue to close and no amount of hoping for a reversal of that will realistically benefit these local markets. Instead, we need to look forward.

Does providing broadband solve the crisis in Kentucky and other parts of the country? Absolutely not. But it may prove to be a small step in the right direction if it’s linked to a longer term perspective on improving the educational system and making necessary tools available to the next generation.

Eddie is currently driving through the “fly over” states of America, looking at the current, and potential, impact of technology including broadband adoption, consumer electronics, video consumption and mobile. The results of this investigation will be published in the upcoming Technology in Rural America Report.

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