Arthur J. Harvey
|Technology and Communication Policy:
At the Rural Crossroads
Forbes is the Director of Community Programs for the Civil Rights Forum on
Communications Policy in Washington DC, www.civilrightsforum.org.
A fuller version of this article is available at www.civilrightsforum.org/ruralcrossroads.htm.
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
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
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
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.