Each month EDA Director Jack Geller writes a commentary on topics of interest to community and economic developers across rural Minnesota. Below is a list of all commentaries with the most recent listed first.
Understanding the Digitally Distant
I have no doubt that looking back several years from now that 2010 will be viewed as a landmark year in terms of the deployment of broadband technology throughout rural Minnesota. Due to the passage of the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), more than $7 billion dollars were appropriated nationwide to support the deployment, access and adoption of broadband technology; much of it targeted toward rural America. It is a level of technology investment that can best be described as unprecedented. And to date here in Minnesota, municipalities, counties, nonprofit organizations and state agencies have been working together with local and regional broadband providers to secure more than $400 million of these funds.
I have been following the deployment of broadband technology throughout rural Minnesota for more than a decade now, and I can say without hesitation that while we cannot yet state that broadband is ubiquitous, overall, it is fair to say that it is increasingly accessible. Accordingly, this large infusion of technology investment just may be the final push toward ubiquity. Data from several sources seem to support this notion. For example, state broadband maps from Connect Minnesotasm suggest that only 6 percent of households still have no access to a broadband service; while a recently released report from the Center for Rural Policy and Development documents Internet connectivity rates among rural households at an estimated 70 percent.
What is most interesting about this infusion of federal funding is that much of it is targeted to some of the most rural regions in Minnesota. A good example is the recent announcement of an $82 million award to deploy digital fiber throughout Lake, Cook and northern St. Louis counties. Anyone who has ever ventured up the north shore to Grand Marais, the Gunflint Trail, or the Boundary Waters Canoe Area can attest to the remoteness of this Northeast Minnesota region. In fact, a recent study commissioned by the Blandin Foundation found that while only 8 percent of rural households who are online still connect with a dial-up connection, in Cook County dial-up still represents 25 percent of their Internet connections. Accordingly, these large investments in such remote places just might make the difference in changing the broadband map.
However, while watching this activity is certainly exciting, I must caution as a social scientist that increasing the availability of broadband does not guarantee the adoption of broadband. In fact, the adoption of any technology or innovation is far more complicated than that. Rather adoption is dependent upon a variety of factors including cost, relevance, interest and in some cases, even religion (e.g. the Amish have yet to adopt electricity). And with 70 percent of rural households already online it is important to take a closer look at those who have yet to log on to the Internet.
Analyzing data of those rural households who have yet to even report having a working computer in their home finds that almost 70 percent are 65 years of age or older; 91 percent live in a household of 2 or fewer people; 94 percent report having no school-age children living in their household; and 46 percent report a household income under $25,000. Equally important is the strong correlation between Age and Income, where 64 percent of rural residents who report having a household income of less than $25,000 are also age 65 or older. This "double whammy" of older age and lower income will certainly create a barrier to technology adoption that may not easily be overcome.
So as we applaud this new level of technology investment that will digitally launch some of our most rural places into the 21st century, we must equally understand that the work is far from over. For the "build it and they will come" strategy will not likely work for those who are currently the most "digitally distant." Rather we need to address some of the fundamental demographic and socio-economic factors, not just the technology factors. And it is organizations such as the Mankato-based PCs for People that can help lead the way. This local group of social entrepreneurs collects and refurbishes used computers for redistribution to thousands of low-income Minnesota families. That along with the hands on training they provide to these families is just the type of hand holding and support that will be needed to increase adoption rates beyond their current levels.
Not familiar with PCs for People? Well the next time you are online "Google" them.
Geller is professor & head of the Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. He also serves as the director of the federally-funded EDA Center at UMC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org