Broadband and Rural Population

Rural counties in total in the US gained 33,000 people in 2017, the first overall increase in rural population since 2011. But the gains came entirely to rural counties adjacent to metropolitan areas and highlights that remote rural counties continue a long-term trend of losing population. Nationwide, counties not next to metropolitan areas lost 24,000 people in 2017.

Further, within that global number, there is a different by the primary economic drivers in each county. Farming counties lost the most population, rural counties with manufacturing only lost a little population, and counties that rely on recreation and tourism gained population, attributed mostly to in-migration of retirees.

The loss of population is one of the primary reasons that rural counties are looking for better broadband. Rural counties don’t have to peer to far into the future to see a bleak picture. Their counties are often rapidly aging as young people move away to find employment. They are already seeing houses abandoned and foresee a shrinking property tax base. Farm counties continue to see the consolidation of farms and the loss of the family farmer.

Rural counties have different goals from broadband than more urban areas. They foremost hope that better broadband can mean more jobs and more employment. Many rural counties are not naïve enough any more to think they are going to attract factories or other businesses to their county. Some get lucky occasionally, but the country as a whole has lost an astonishing 60,000 factories since 2001. And even when new factories arise, they are largely automated and support far fewer jobs than factories in the past.

Rural counties care more about finding ways for residents to supplement incomes, and better broadband brings the chance to work from home. I was working with a rural county in Minnesota last year where I noticed that almost every farm in the county was operating a non-farming business along with farming as a way to supplement income – and this was in a county where the farms had practically no broadband at all and many homes relies on their cellular data for extremely expensive broadband connections. These counties want broadband so that the people living there can make enough money to stay.

Rural counties also need broadband for education. I rarely visit a rural county where there are not a few places in the county where rural residents drive their kids a few night each week to use WiFi in order to do their homework. It’s disheartening to see a parking lot full of cars at a library after it’s closed sitting and doing homework on the slow WiFi leaking out through the library walls.

Earlier I mentioned counties that rely on recreation for their economy. These counties desperately want broadband because they are finding that urban tourists don’t want to visit places that don’t have good internet connectivity and cellphone coverage. And businesses in these counties who rely on tourism have a hard time making it without broadband. Something as simple as offering on-line reservations requires a decent broadband connection, and lack of broadband puts counties at a disadvantage compared to similar areas with broadband.

Finally, rural counties want broadband to help keep the elderly in their homes longer. As hard as it is to be elderly in an urban area it’s much harder in a rural area where something as simple as seeing a doctor can mean a long trip. Rural areas also have a hard time attracting doctors and as rural clinics and hospitals continue to close it will become even harder to get basic healthcare. So rural counties are relying more and more on telemedicine and providers like the Mayo Clinic are embracing the technology to help rural America – but telemedicine require decent broadband including good upload speeds.

The skeptics of any government push to improve broadband often use the excuse that people just want broadband to watch TV, and that broadband is just for entertainment. And when people get broadband they take advantage of the wonderful world of entertainment now available on the Internet. But I can’t recall ever having seen entertainment on the list of reasons why rural counties want better broadband – they want it so that their counties survive as viable communities.