More evidence that broadband matters

There has been a lot of talk over the past year or so about how important it is to have access to broadband internet, for students, entrepreneurs, health care and teleworkers. Now a new study shows the real economic impact broadband adoption can have. The Daily Yonder, which has been great about reporting on rural broadband issues, featured a terrific summary of the new report. The study looked at rural areas which had similar demographic characteristics prior to broadband availability and then compared their economies after one region had widespread broadband adoption. The results showed that household incomes in rural counties that adopted broadband grew more quickly than those that didn’t. Similarly, unemployment rates grew more slowly and number of businesses grew more quickly in counties with high broadband adoption (the article notes that, due to the recession, unemployment was higher in almost all counties).

The study points out a key difference between broadband availability and adoption. When just looking at whether or not broadband was available, there wasn’t much difference; so the important factor is whether or not people take advantage of the broadband that’s there. If broadband is too expensive or unreliable, or folks don’t know how to sign up or effectively use it, then it doesn’t matter if it’s being offered.
A previous study (also covered by Daily Yonder) found that while counties nationwide increased their adoption of broadband, the gap between rural and non-rural areas actually grew between 2003 and 2010, particularly among lower-income, lower education and older households. That article concluded:

So, while most government policies dealing with broadband have traditionally focused exclusively on providing infrastructure (such as grants or loans to telecommunication companies), there is a case to be made for attempting to increase demand.  Economists have been making this case for awhile.  In particular, 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.

There has been a lot of talk in Central Appalachia about economic development opportunities in teleworking, attracting the “creative class,” and entrepreneurship, and rightly so – these are pieces of the diversification puzzle for our region. But if folks either can’t get broadband, or circumstances keep them from using it, then all that investment will fail to reach its full potential.

Photo by flickr user lupuca, used under Creative Commons license.