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April 2010

In Rural America, “Access” is the Name of the Game

Bob Stallman
American Farm Bureau
By Bob Stallman
President, American Farm Bureau

Job creation and community renewal present major challenges for rural citizens. Maintaining and improving infrastructure to keep communities competitive and profitable is a daily struggle. Many rural Americans are grappling to participate in the new global economy but are being left behind in the digital revolution.

In rural America, having “access” to basic services is the name of the game. And if rural citizens are going to play, they need to be connected.

The Motherboard

Retaining professionals in rural America is tough work. Much needed teachers and doctors aren’t going to stay in rural areas without access to services, such as the availability and affordability of broadband Internet access, healthcare and education, that most of their counterparts in urban and suburban areas easily take for granted.

Broadband access at an affordable rate is a real concern for rural citizens who need this technology to improve their personal and professional lives. High-speed Internet not only makes businesses more efficient and provides a means for connecting to the rest of the world, it expands educational and health care opportunities.

Broadband access will help communities survive and grow by providing health care improvements through telemedicine centers connecting small-town patients with big-city hospitals and entrepreneurial and business development opportunities focused on access to the global economy.

Broadband access also means jobs. According to a Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service report, “Broadband Internet’s Value for Rural America,” total employment grew faster between 2000 and 2006 in rural counties with high broadband availability than similarly situated counties without broadband. Further, wage and salary jobs, as well as the number of proprietors, grew faster in counties with early broadband Internet access.

A Mouse, a Port, a Zune

While broadband is essential for rural professionals, it, too, is critical for rural schools. Let’s face it, rural children spend hours every day being bused to and from school. Couple that with dial-up Internet, it is a huge chunk of educational time lost in comparison to students in urban areas.

Expanded education through distance learning labs, along with other innovative technologies can put rural students on par with their urban counterparts.

Such a solution can be seen in a recent pilot project in Fort Sumner, N.M., where long-distance travel is a way of life for students. With the help of Microsoft and a state grant, the school district was able to outfit students with individual multi-media “Zune” players, allowing them to download videos, lectures and assignments from school computers and study during their long rides home.

While such innovations are slowly coming online, access to basic services continues to be essential for rural America and the competitiveness of our nation. Rural residents shouldn’t be kept at a disadvantage and isolated from healthcare, educational and economic advancements happening throughout the rest of the country. It’s time we make the connection.