A new survey of rural Americans should make us underweight rural broadband

National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health just published a new report on “Life in Rural America.” This survey of 1,300 adults living in the rural United States has a lot to say about health issues, population change, the strengths and challenges for rural communities, as well as discrimination and drug use. But I wanted to highlight two questions related to rural broadband development that might make you update your beliefs about massive rural investment.

To begin with, it should be noted that this survey didn’t feature rural broadband development that much, but the topic did arise in the context of improving rural economies. Specifically, question 44 asked, “Recently, a number of leadership groups have recommended different approaches for improving the economy of communities like yours. For each of the following, please tell me how helpful you think this approach would be for improving the economy of your local community…[insert item]. Do you think this would be very helpful, somewhat helpful, not too helpful, or not at all helpful?”

Here is a breakdown of how people responded, saying that these changes would be very helpful:

  1. Creating better long-term job opportunities 64%
  2. Improving the quality of local public schools 61%
  3. Improving access to health care 55%
  4. Improving access to advanced job training or skills development 51%
  5. Improving local infrastructure like roads, bridges, and public buildings 48%
  6. Improving the use of advanced technology in local industry and farming 44%
  7. Improving access to small business loans and investments 44%
  8. Improving access to high-speed internet 43%

Notice where improving access to Internet ranks. It is at the bottom. And improving the use of advanced technology in local industry and farming doesn’t do much better. What ranks higher than both of these, however, is improving access to advanced job training or skills development. As I have been saying for some time, digital literacy efforts are seriously underrated.

The poll also asked an open ended question in Question 2, what is the biggest problem facing your community, and again, access to high speed Internet was near the bottom of the list. In fact, racism, access to good doctors and hospitals, access to public transportation, law enforcement, and access to grocery stores all ranked as more pressing concerns. What topped the list were opioid addiction and jobs.

Rural broadband development should be pursued. But this polling suggests that some might want to revise their estimates about a big economic bump from rural broadband.