Barry Forbes
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Arthur J. Harvey
Barry Forbes
Fred Johnson
Mary Lester
Jon Darling

Technology and Communication Policy: At the Rural Crossroads Barry Forbes is the Director of Community Programs for the Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy in Washington DC, A fuller version of this article is available at
Barry Forbes

The Industrial Revolution drove vast populations from the rural communities to the growing cities. The burgeoning Technological Revolution can lure people back to the country-side -- or isolate rural communities from the rest of the world.

Development in Rural America

The four major areas of rural development -- economic growth, education, public health and safety, and community -- are each greatly affected by technology and communications policy.

Everybody's Business -- The traditional businesses of rural communities have been farms, retail stores, manufacturing plants, and companies that harvest natural resources such as coal and timber. The strength of these businesses determine the financial health of the families and local governments of rural communities. Rural businesses are facing challenges getting the basic things they need to thrive: access to capital (such as low-interest loans or a reduction of taxes); "infra-structure" (such basic public utilities as roads, electricity, telephone services, and, increasingly, high-speed data lines); educated and skilled employees; and a generally supportive business environment (such as through locally supported business parks, eco-tourism, or resources for alternative agriculture.)

Learning Curve  -- Fewer businesses and property-owners in rural communities mean fewer tax dollars for public education. Some of the challenges include maintaining the quality of K-12 schools (such as through teacher recruitment and retention, provision of books and other teaching aids, diversity of subject matter, and ongoing teacher certification); vocational training for viable rural businesses; and life-long learning for adults.

Safety Net -- Basic health and public safety services taken for granted by most of the country are also at risk in rural communities. Providing medical care is complicated by the challenges of recruiting and retaining qualified medical professionals and securing necessary equipment and supplies. Public safety is hampered by few funds for police, fire, and emergency medical technicians -- and servicing large geographic areas. Rural communities lack many of the social services offered in urban areas such as low-income housing for families, food subsidies, and job training and networking.

Community Pride -- Small towns are often assumed to be models of community, but the reverse is often true. While rural areas may experience more civic participation, the primary sources of information are urban-focused television and radio stations, print media, and, increasingly, Internet services.

Special Technology/Telecommunications Issues in Rural Communities

Basic Telephony -- The quality of telephone service is usually worse in rural areas than in urban or suburban communities. Line availability and service are both haphazard. Multiple small phone companies serve localized rural areas -- which means expensive "long distance" calls over relatively short distances.

Universal Service -- Much of the state and federal telephone taxes are re-invested with the telecommunications companies through "universal service" programs in four ways: (a) subsidizing telephone lines in "high cost" rural areas, (b) subsidizing telephone connections and services for poor families, (c) connecting schools and libraries to the internet (through the Schools and Libraries Division), and (d) connecting rural health services through the Internet (with the Rural Health Care Division). All four programs have come under fire from both the industry and from some federal legislators.

Deployment of Advanced Telecommunications, or Digital Access -- The "digital revolution" means that different forms of communication (telephone, television, and computer information) can use the same pathways, typically fiber optic cables. Since an actual fiber optic cable must be physically strung from point to point, low-density areas of the country are not profitable to telecom companies. Whereas the telephone network and the interstate highways were subsidized by state and federal governments, the evolving high-speed telecommunications network is not. The result is a great deal of "over-building" in metropolitan areas -- and few "pipelines" in rural areas.

Wireless telephone service, or cellular, is a workable alternative to wireline telephone service in extremely rural areas. However, wireless companies do not receive the same kind of universal service subsidies, the FCC regulates the spectrum that these wireless services use, and many local communities charge local tower siting fees.

Local cable television franchises can require operators to provide public, educational, and governmental (PEG) access funding, equipment and facilities; high-speed "institutional network' or "I-nets"; and Internet access in exchange for the use of local rights-of-way and easements. However, various federal laws and court decisions have affected what local communities can request as compensation. Plus, recent mergers of traditional cable television companies are blurring the lines between the services that may be regulated by local and state authorities.

Direct broadcast satellite (DBS) serve homes, farms, and businesses outside the loop of cable television and on the fringe of broadcast signals. Originally, DBS companies (such as PrimeStar) were barred from providing local broadcast programming. However, Congress is currently allowing the re-broadcast of some "local" television stations under specific conditions. But the term "local" is used loosely since the closest TV station may be scores of miles away geographically -- and would be unlikely to cover the events and issues of small towns outside its primary signal area.

Federal and state public technology program appropriations for information technology may be the only way some rural communities can get connected. Several federal funding programs need ongoing citizen support to fend off proposed cuts: the Department of Commerce's "Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program" (TIIAP), the Department of Education's Community Technology Center grants, the Federal Communications Commission's Schools and Libraries Division and Rural Health Care Division funds, and various Department of Agriculture programs.

Community technology centers are often the only ways rural small businesses and families can get access to the Internet. In most cases, metropolitan areas have local dial-in access, both residential and commercial high-speed telephone lines, access through cable television, and even satellite access. Rural areas are usually limited in these options.

Rural Signposts and Way Stations

Keeping up with changes in information technology and communications can be a difficult task. And understanding the different levels and aspects of public policy can be confusing. But citizen involvement in making policy and directing technology is critical for rural development. Fortunately, many organizations and individuals are dedicated to making technology and communication policy work for rural communities. (See the list of "Rural Resources on the Web.") However, more active local involvement is critical in shaping the public policy that can bring the "Technological Revolution" to all people -- and help rural America become more economically stable, better educated, safe and secure, and more equitable, and support truly livable communities.