Rural Americans have inferior Internet access

Does it matter that broadband quality varies so widely?

  • Communities with at least 3 mbps download speeds are shown in blue, on the National Broadband Map.

    Broadband map.gov
 

The 260 residents of Ten Sleep, Wyo., drive at least 26 miles to buy groceries and 112 to catch a plane. Local businesses include the Crazy Woman Café and Dirty Sally's, a soda fountain and souvenir shop. You wouldn't expect an Internet entrepreneur to launch a startup here. But in 2006, Kent Holiday did just that, opening Eleutian Technology, where local teachers tutor Asian students in English through live online videos. He now employs about 500 teachers around the region.

Holiday was visiting his in-laws when he noticed the local telephone utility laying fiber-optic cable: Ten Sleep was getting high-speed Internet. In 2011, President Obama used Eleutian as an example of the Internet's effects on rural economic development: "For local businesses, broadband access is helping them grow, prosper and compete in a global economy."

But such access – the basic modern infrastructure many city-folk take for granted – is far from universal. Of the 19 million Americans who lack broadband access – defined as 4 megabits per second (mbps) download speed, 1 mbps upload – 14.5 million live in rural areas. Thirty percent of Indians living on reservations also lack access.

Speedy Internet is not a panacea, but it can provide a much-needed boost. For rural residents, writes Sharon Strover, a communications professor at University of Texas-Austin, "having broadband is simply treading water or keeping up. Not having it means sinking." Now, projects to wire the Navajo Nation and other rural areas could help close the West's connectivity gap. Will they be the economic boon everyone hopes?

The more densely populated a place is, the more likely it is to have fast, affordable Internet. When people live far apart, service providers don't profit enough to cover the costs of building and maintaining the physical infrastructure. If they do provide access, it's often at higher prices and slower speeds than in urban areas. In the rural West, where 2 million people lack broadband access, topography is also a barrier. Mountains and narrow valleys can block signals from wireless towers and satellites and make it difficult to install fiber-optic cables. Silverton, for instance – population 637, at an elevation of 9,300 feet in a remote and rugged alpine area – is the only county seat in Colorado not plugged into fiber-optic cables.

As the Internet becomes a more integral part of daily life, people with shoddy connections are at an economic disadvantage. Fast Internet is necessary to take video-based online classes and to sign up for health care. (Imagine the horror of trying to navigate Healthcare.gov with dial-up.) Rural hospitals use it to video-conference with urban medical specialists, and schoolteachers increasingly record lectures that students can watch at home.

But Lawrence Wood, associate professor of media arts and studies at Ohio University, says the most significant drawbacks are cultural. "The main reason people use broadband these days is for entertainment," he says. Having a smartphone or a fast Internet connection "is really a matter of being a part of contemporary life in the United States."

Expecting the private sector alone to fill the broadband availability gap is unrealistic. So a number of rural areas have turned to community-owned networks. Powell, Wyo., built its own fiber-optic network, which a local Internet provider pays to use, and many of Washington state's public utility districts are doing the same, some with help from the 2009 stimulus. On the Navajo Nation, where fewer than 4 percent of residents have broadband access, the tribal utility recently received a $32 million federal grant to bring wireless service to the entire reservation. And in southeastern Colorado, a rural electrical co-op provides broadband in places like Two Buttes, population 43 – doing for Internet what it did for electricity in the 1930s.

But simply having access isn't enough; people have to actually use it. Broadband adoption rates are 13 percent lower in rural America than in cities, Strover found, with non-users citing high cost and the belief that they don't need to be online. But when rural residents use broadband, there are economic benefits. In a 2013 study, Strover found that rural counties where over 60 percent of people used broadband had more rapid income growth and slower unemployment growth than similar counties with fewer people online.

Broadband cannot, however, reverse long-term economic trends like rural-to-urban migration, or change proximity to a highway or the quality or size of the local labor force. "Most economic decisions depend on a multitude of factors," writes Shane Greenstein, who studies information technology and economics at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, "and broadband is but one of many."

While broadband helped lure Eleutian Technology to Ten Sleep, it wasn't enough to keep it there. After three years, the company decided to move. Eleutian needed a bigger building, but no water or sewer lines ran to the large lot it had bought a quarter-mile outside of town, and the cost of installation was too high. Plus, Ten Sleep lacked adequate housing for Eleutian employees, some of whom had to live in trailers, and the long drive to the Yellowstone Regional Airport was burdensome.

So Eleutian moved to Cody, population 9,500 – a city by Wyoming standards. A Cody-based economic development team secured a grant to build the company's headquarters, which Eleutian now leases with the option to buy at below market value in the future.

"We just couldn't compete with the bigger area," says LeeAnn Chenoweth, executive director of the Washakie Development Association in Worland, Wyo., which tried to keep Eleutian in Ten Sleep. "Having broadband can attract business, but places that have 200 or 300 people are probably always going to be challenged by the economy of scale."

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.