The Urban / Rural Gap

Seattle-SkylineI have written a lot about the urban/rural broadband gap. I work with a lot of rural communities that have either no broadband or connectivity so slow it shouldn’t count as broadband. In today’s world it’s nearly as frustrating to be stuck with a 1 Mbps Internet connection as it is to have no connection.

But in the last two weeks I have spent time in places like Philadelphia and Seattle/Tacoma and it strikes me that there are now a huge number of ‘gaps’ between urban places and the rest of the US. People in those urban places have opportunities that the rest of us don’t have. The tech press is full of news about various new start-ups, and a lot of these new businesses only do business in big cities. I suspect that people who haven’t recently spent time in downtown cities don’t realize how fast life there is changing.

So what kind of gaps am I talking about? Here are some examples, though you can find plenty more:

  • Wireless Coverage. There is a huge gap between the quality of cellular data in cities and the rest of the country. I routinely visit suburban and rural places where you still have to hunt for a signal. In the early days of cellular this was common everywhere and it used to be comical to watch people roving around airports trying to catch a bar of service. But this problem has largely been solved in urban areas. Now most urban places not only have good coverage, but there is usually good 4G coverage almost everywhere. This means that people in cities can use apps that don’t work well, or at all, in places with worse coverage. But even in urban areas there are holes in the coverage. For example, I talk to a friend in DC who loses voice coverage every time he drives across one of the Potomac bridges. But overall, the cellular experience in urban areas is far superior to the coverage in the rest of the country.
  • Sharing Economy. While the sharing economy is booming in urban areas, it’s harder to find anywhere else. The concept of sharing resources is applied to many services people need in cities. Cities have Uber and Lyft which makes it a lot easier to get around without a car. But if somebody in a city wants a car there are numerous vehicle sharing services like Zipcar and Car2Go where you can conveniently share a fleet of cars with others and use one whenever you need it. You can also walk up and grab a shared bicycle using Spinlister or other bike sharing services.
  • Delivery of Basic Services. It’s now possible to get almost anything delivered to you on demand if you live in a city. I live in an upscale small town in Florida and our only food delivery is a few pizza places. But in cities there are delivery services that will bring you food from almost every restaurant. People in cities now routinely shop for groceries online and have them delivered. And almost anything else you can imagine can be routinely and affordably delivered in a city.
  • Instant Shipping. There has been a lot of press in the last few years about Amazon and other delivery services offering same day, or even just a few hour, shipping. But these speedy services are only available in cities.
  • Ubiquitous WiFi. It is getting to the point in cities where you can walk around and find WiFi almost everywhere. It’s still a hassle at times to keep logging into new networks, but that is going to be fixed soon with the widespread deployment of Hotspot 2.0. Free WiFi allows people in cities to stay connected cheaply everywhere, which is a huge contrast with the rest of the country where there might be WiFi in a few restaurants and other places, but otherwise public WiFi is a rarity.

There have always been differences between living in a city versus living other places. But the proliferation of these better services in the cities is widening the gap much more than in the past. Years ago I lived in downtown cities like Dallas, St. Louis, and San Francisco and the differences were not nearly as great as they are today. Cities have always been noisier and more crowded and hard places to own a vehicle. Of course there has always been the added benefits of the accessibility of a lot of choices for food, entertainment, and culture. But overall it wasn’t all that different living in a city and you didn’t experience a huge change in lifestyle when you went outside the city.

But the proliferation of easy-to-use services, largely fueled by the Internet, is making city life very different than what the rest of us experience. One can imagine people being raised in the city who are going to feel like life elsewhere in the US is an alien experience. And these differences are going to grow greater as cities get even more services that are enabled by ubiquitous bandwidth and that also benefit by the economy of scale of large places. For many years it’s been common for young professionals to take jobs in big cities and then move out to the suburbs when they have kids and a family. But people that get used to the amazing service economy in cities might find that transition harder to accept than in the past.

2 thoughts on “The Urban / Rural Gap

  1. Education: Urban kids with 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps home internet will learn exponentially faster than rural kids with 1 to 5 Mbps.

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