Small towns look for a road forward, paved with fiber-optic

A group of New Mexico newsrooms examines the future of broadband access in rural communities.

 

This story is part of The State of Change project, produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network. 

As I write this note, I have Twitter open, and Facebook beside it, keeping an eye on High Country News’ channels. I have our internal messaging service open and my work email, too. This is a normal day for me and for many others: Our work requires us to be plugged in and paying attention. That means it requires an internet connection fast enough to load all those sites for me and all my colleagues. In Paonia, Colorado, the town of 1,400 where High Country News is based, that’s been the work of decades. And many days, it’s still a work in progress.

For the past year, a group of New Mexico news organizations, with support from High Country News and the Solutions Journalism Network, has investigated how to build rural communities that last. (To read our past stories, check out the archive here.) Among other things, we’ve found a lack of high-speed internet holds communities back.

A motel in Grants, New Mexico.

Nationwide, 39 percent of rural Americans — 23 million people in total — don’t have access to the internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission. And people in rural areas are far less likely to use the internet than those who live in cities or suburbs, Pew surveys have found. Those gaps are especially high on tribal lands and in low-income communities — a phenomenon known as the digital divide. As more businesses rely on the internet, the gaps between the broadband haves and have-nots grow.

In New Mexico, only 80 percent of residents have access to a high-speed internet connection, according to Broadband Now. That’s in spite of promises by the state that everyone in New Mexico would have access to broadband by 2015 and an influx of funds for broadband expansions.

So we decided to dig into what local communities, tribal nations and individuals are doing to bridge the digital divide. Infrastructure is still where most of the money and effort is going; communities like Taos and the Pueblo de Cochiti are making the most of federal funds and local support to get hooked up to high speed internet. And this is often where communities stall, trying to figure out how to get fast internet access and whether they even want it.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, near Pueblo de Cochiti, New Mexico.

But for many, the question of how to turn digital connectivity — once you have it — into economic growth can prove equally intractable. Plenty of towns enjoy lightning-fast connections; far fewer have leveraged that resource to drive jobs and development. That’s where a new program in Grants comes in. It looks to train adults how to succeed as remote workers, a growing swath of the American labor force.

It’d be foolish to assume that Denver- or Seattle-grade internet speeds will automatically propel rural communities into economic prosperity. No doubt the leadership, vision and resources that built rural America in the first place are still necessary, too. If it works, though, small towns increasingly will be populated by people like me, tabs open on their computer screens, a long way from our mining, ranching and farming pasts.

Kate Schimel

Deputy editor-digital

High Country News


Want to read more on rural sustainability? Check out The Montana Gap project, produced in collaboration with our Montana media partners.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Small home, 2 barns (one has an apartment), and more. Approx. two acres just in the City limits. Famously pure air...
  • TAOS HORNO ADVENTURES
    A Multicultural Culinary Memoir Informed by History and Horticulture. Richard and Annette Rubin. At nighthawkpress.com/titles and Amazon.