What’s the point of a road if there are no drivers?

Posted in Broadband

It’s an age-old question, if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one to hear it, did it make a sound? We might ask the same thing of broadband. If fiber cable is laid in the ground, but no one has the tools or knowledge to access it, is it really there?

Very few will argue that infrastructure is not needed. Before you can learn to ride a bike, you must have access to one. Typically, though, once you have the bike, someone is by your side, coaching you as you swerve back and forth, teeter-tottering on your training wheels. With their help, you can master the craft.

Much like learning to ride a bike, becoming broadband literate takes time and practice. People must have the right tools and the insight into how broadband can benefit them in their day-to-day lives.

To date, though, much of government’s spending has been focused on infrastructure, not adoption.

Broadband Gap by Income Level - Source: Daily Yonder

In a recent Daily Yonder article, Whitacre, Gallardo, and Strover point to broadband accessibility data to make a case for increased funding for broadband adoption.

While data shows that the overall digital divide between rural and urban has remained unchanged over the past seven years, that’s not true for all Americans. The gap has, in fact, expanded for many “historically disadvantaged” groups in rural America, namely those that fall into the categories of low income, low education and the elderly.

The groups that could possibly benefit the most from being plugged-into broadband are falling further behind because they don’t have the tools or the training to access the available infrastructure – and resources are scarce when it comes to funding broadband adoption.

The Daily Yonder article goes on to state:

the much ballyhooed $7.2 billion broadband component of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act only put about 3.5% of those funds toward encouraging sustainable adoption. Programs that help educate rural citizens about the opportunities that broadband presents are a useful complement to investments in the infrastructure itself – and likely deserve a bigger chunk of the pie

In 2009, Blandin Foundation received federal funding (part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act) for the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) project. Along with 19 coalition partners, Blandin Foundation granted out $4.7 million to 11 rural Minnesota demonstration counties, focusing on community-based work in sustainable broadband adoption, job growth and wealth creation. Over 60 broadband adoption projects were carried out, with tremendous success.

Through the MIRC project, low income, low education and elderly Minnesotans gained access to the tools and training they needed to make use of available broadband technology in their rural communities. In other words, the road was paved, they just needed access to a car and driver’s training to get them moving toward new destinations.

The success of MIRC illustrates how one federally-funded broadband project can move the dial forward in rural broadband adoption. What do you think could happen if federal funding for broadband adoption got a “bigger chunk of the pie”?