The most daunting obstacle for rural communities trying to achieve universal broadband access is a lack of understanding. On the community level, there is a lack of understanding among local populations about the importance of becoming digitally literate and the benefits that broadband can bring to their everyday lives. On the local leadership level, there is a lack of understanding by elected officials who fail to see the fundamental role that broadband can play in bettering their constituents’ future. And finally, on the federal level there is a lack of recognition of the depth of the digital divide and the reasons it exists, resulting in a lack of urgent action. Communities must identify and communicate their own needs by getting involved in the decision-making spheres, such as state broadband task forces and advisory committees, to shore up their shortfalls into productive policy action.
These were the findings of a listening session  held by the Center for Media Justice and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative at this year’s National Rural Assembly in St. Paul, Minnesota.
More than 300 rural advocates, including Progressive States Network, gathered at the conference to discuss rural needs, challenges, strategies, and policy recommendations for increasing broadband access. At the core of these discussions was a concern about the dearth of information and understanding about the scope of the broadband gap, the problems that rural communities face, the dangers of falling behind the information curve, and the range of potential solutions. Communities must find effective avenues for creating the change necessary to thrive in the 21st century.
Before the broadband gap can be communicated, it must be thoroughly understood. To move campaigns forward in educating populations and policymakers alike, advocates are requesting academic research on media and telecom’s predatory practices, the connection between broadband access and quality of life, and the economic benefits that increased broadband access can bring to a community. This information would help them draw strong, convincing conclusions about the obstacles they face and the most effective strategies available, both for the short and long run. These strategies can then be crafted into a cohesive, intuitive narrative that can be used to motivate and educate communities and generate momentum behind change by tying broadband policy to the daily lives and agendas of community members and policymakers.
Once the research and messaging components are in place, rural communities have several advantages in effectively communicating them on the local level. Rural communities are typically more closely knit than urban populations and possess strong anchor institutions, such as libraries and schools, which provide Internet access and education and that can help identify specific local needs and the most appropriate best practices from neighboring areas. Close relationships with elected and appointed officials will also help keep the message on track from a people’s mandate to a political priority. The next step for advocates will be a connection to federal policymakers in D.C. to communicate the needs of America’s rural communities and help implement effective policies. Much of the most important broadband policy development happens at the federal level, so this connection will be crucial to creating substantive change.
Outcomes of the Workshop
By identifying what is at stake for rural communities, what specific challenges must be overcome, and what communities can actually do, the strategy sessions helped show where local broadband advocacy can be most effective. The list of benefits to increased broadband penetration runs the gamut from improved health care quality to better education to more effective business development, civic engagement, emergency response systems, city planning, and more. What emerges is a vision of a better, more efficient future in a myriad of ways. Inspiring as this vision is, its broadness lacks an easily communicable clarity and specificity. Any call to action will not be heeded until citizens and lawmakers alike understand the missed opportunities and substantial costs that come with inadequate broadband access.
These and other challenges expose both the limitations of local level broadband policy as well as the central role that education will have to play in this debate. Local and state funding and infrastructure are limited, receiving federal funding is a complex process, and eligibility requirements are already confusing and continuing to change (as the Universal Service Fund is overhauled to include broadband). However, from these challenges emerge areas where local communities can make a difference by learning more about the issue and leading a statewide conversation. By thoroughly understanding their own needs and getting involved in state broadband task forces and commissions, local representatives can most effectively advocate for policies that help their communities at the local and state levels. By sharing rural success stories and best practices, local advocates can educate local officials and communities on these issues while pushing for improved policies.
Several policy recommendations came out of the sessions, each of which is directly tied to community education and improved communication about the need for expanded broadband access. Most of the recommendations focused on putting control over broadband infrastructure in the community’s hands by defining broadband as community infrastructure, recognizing Internet service as a public utility, and public ownership and community-broadband networks that allow local entities to ensure that every member of the community is offered access. Another recommendation was to reform the Universal Service Fund, which the FCC is currently doing, to encourage universal adoption and availability of broadband and facilitate other common goals.
No solution will be possible until the problem itself is fully understood and appreciated. Right now, it is the job of advocates and organizers to find effective ways to inspire communities to make broadband penetration a priority. Because the issue is so complicated and the costs and benefits so wide-ranging, this means working hard at finding the data and messages that best educate, inspire, and motivate each community and create momentum that will resonate with elected officials.
For a list of strategies and solutions, see Progressive States Network’s Policy Options Report for 2011 .