Broadband and Population Growth

Last September, The Daily Yonder wrote an article authored by Brian Whitaker and Roberto Gallardo that correlated the change in population by county from 2010 to 2020 to the percentage of homes that can buy good broadband. I’ve reread this article a few times because it makes a lot of good points about both population changes and broadband.

The article cites some interesting facts. The growth in population in the U.S. over the last decade occurred almost entirely in metropolitan areas. About two-thirds of counties from non-metropolitan counties lost population during the decade. Rural counties overall lost 280,000 residents during the decade. Specific types of counties fared differently – 80% of farming-dependent counties lost population while 40% of recreation-dependent counties lost people.

I love the story the authors are telling – that counties with better broadband fared better than counties without. As somebody who works to bring better broadband to communities, I want this to be true. But it’s a complex issue that is hard for anybody to get their hands around. Consider the issues involved in fully understanding the relationship of broadband and population.

We sadly don’t know how many people have broadband in most rural counties. The large telephone companies and many WISPS have badly misrepresented the availability of broadband in reporting to the FCC. I worked with a county last year where the FCC records showed that over half of rural residents had access to broadband faster than 25/3 Mbps. I worked with the county to solicit more than a thousand speed tests, and we didn’t find any rural residents getting a speed test over 25/3 Mbps, and most weren’t even remotely close to that speed.

By the end of 2020, the whole country was attuned to the problems contained in the FCC broadband map reporting. But it’s unfathomable to think about using statistics from FCC maps from 2010 when nobody was paying attention to the issue. It’s nearly impossible to rely on any statistics that count the percentage of broadband coverage in most rural areas – especially over time.

Another issue cropped up at the end of the decade that might have more impact on rural populations than anything we’ve seen in a long time. A lot of people moved as a result of the pandemic. I’ve worked with a few rural counties that report a significant influx of new residents in the last year. But I also heard from counties that saw a bigger outflow than normal during the pandemic. Unfortunately, these events happened after the 2020 Census data collection, and it’s going to take a while to understand how the pandemic changed population shifts.

We’re heading into a time when many rural counties are going to suddenly get great broadband. Nobody’s crystal ball is good enough to know how much of a dent the current round of grant funding is going to make on the rural landscape. I conjecture that we’re going to see a clear distinction a decade from now between rural communities with great broadband and communities that somehow don’t find a broadband solution in the next few years.

There is another interesting trend that I think we’ll notice a lot more over the next decade. Most broadband funding is aimed at the rural parts of counties. There has been an assumption at the FCC that rural towns served by cable companies have good broadband. But my work in rural county seats often shows a different story. I’ve worked in county seats during the last two years, where 30% to 50% of residents told us in a survey that broadband in the towns was not good enough to support schooling and working from home. If good broadband is important to people, will we start seeing a migration out of county seats to the surrounding rural areas served by fiber? I’ve been working in rural counties for several decades, and a recurring theme I hear from people is that they’d love to move back to the country. Perhaps our push for better broadband will enable that.

The other big issue that makes it hard to understand rural broadband is affordability. Our surveys show there are a lot of rural residents who can’t afford fast broadband and settle for slow broadband or no broadband. Having good rural broadband available is not a remedy for the people who can’t afford it.

To be clear, I am not criticizing this article – it’s written by folks I admire, and I applaud them for wading deep through the data to make some sense of the broadband landscape. But my practical experience in working with rural counties is that every county is unique, and it’s incredibly difficult to look at broadband issues on a global basis. I can’t think of any way to ever make sense out of a universe of counties that includes large Midwest farms, counties with abject poverty, and counties that rely on tourism,

I am positive that there are rural counties that gained population (or stopped losing population) over the last decade because of great broadband. But I’ve also seen counties that already have fiber almost everywhere that lost population. To be clear, this article doesn’t claim that broadband availability drives population change, but only that there is an interesting correlation. It would be awesome if we had the right facts to be able to understand the impact of good broadband.

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