In 2014, Mike Stittsworth posted a Facebook status promising a $200 voucher for use in his butcher shop to the person who shared the message the most times. “Stittsworth Meats” is in Bemidji, Minnesota, a small rural town with a population of just 14,417. Stittsworth had purchased the shop from his father a few years earlier, and was immediately faced with the challenge of how to get more customers through his doors.
He had put aside $400 for a television commercial when he decided instead on this alternative route. The campaign went viral, catapulting the shop into the top 1% of US private businesses for Facebook followers – as one rural group pointed out, more than Hugo Chavez and LeAnn Rimes. Today, the Stittsworth Meats Facebook page has over 62,000, more than four times the population of Bemidji. Stittsworth now posts several times a day, and accredits this social media traffic for over 50% of the growth he saw in the months following that first post.
The example shows the transformative effect broadband connections can have on rural life. Across the world, the countryside still lags far behind urban areas in connectivity. In the US, more than one in four residents of rural communities does not have a connection that meets the current US standard for “broadband”: internet speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps). In the UK, 41% of properties in rural areas have no access to superfast speeds, defined by the regulatory body Ofcom as 30Mbps.
The digital divide: from Minnesota to Bavaria
“We had a conference a couple of years ago where young people from the state told the audience that they would never consider living in a rural area that didn’t have 21st century broadband.”
This is how Bernadine Joselyn, Director of Public Policy and Engagement at the Blandin Foundation, a not-for-profit in Minnesota that works to bridge the digital divide, describes the worldwide problem.
The countryside is emptying. Ever more people are leaving rural towns and villages to head to the city. Since 1960, the world’s urban population has grown almost four times faster than the rural population: while the rural population grew by 69% between 1960 and 2015, the urban population ballooned by 297%.
“Rural areas famously tend to lose a lot of younger people. There is a risk of a downward spiral”
As a result, the countryside is ageing fast. In Japan – admittedly an extreme example due to its low birth rate – the average age of a farmer is 66, while in the UK, the average age in rural areas is 5.3 years higher than in urban areas. The gap is widening; between 2001 and 2015, the population aged over 65 in rural areas in the UK grew by 37%, while the equivalent growth in cities was just 17%.
“There is a demographic issue,” said Brian Wilson, chairman of the UK’s rural business body Rural England. “Rural areas famously tend to lose a lot of younger people. There is a risk of a downward spiral.”
This puts pressure on services, as rural communities look to provide for the needs of their members, and attract workers to serve them.
“I think also there are some types of businesses where you almost get a clustering effect, particularly businesses where you’re employing people,” said Wilson. “If you’re actually an employee, you need to be somewhere where there are lots of potential employers – you can build a career more easily.”
Rainer Bomeisl, an academic from the Technische Hochschule Deggendorf, who is working to help digitise rural communities in Bavaria, described the problem in similar terms: “Demographic change, coupled with the outward migration of young, well-educated people, is driving ageing in these communities and seeing them shrink. Public and private services alongside technical and social infrastructure are becoming unprofitable and underfunded.”
Broadband or bust
Rural broadband is often touted as a means to meet this demographic challenge. “Broadband infrastructure allows for the diversification of the local economy. It allows you to attract and retain knowledge workers and home-based entrepreneurs,” said Joselyn. “Everything’s better with broadband. Everything’s better with better broadband.”
The Blandin Foundation helps rural communities apply for state funding to build broadband services. While it lacks the resources to fund the broadband installation itself, it coordinates the feasibility studies rural communities use to access the millions of dollars in state funding they need to build them.
For Joselyn, one of the main obstacles to building the broadband connections that could help rural economies thrive is a lack of investment. “Rural areas are so sparsely populated that the return on investment is not there,” said Joselyn. “That’s why they don’t build in rural areas. You need investment to build infrastructure where the return on investment doesn’t meet the requirements of a for-profit investor.”
“Everything’s better with broadband. Everything’s better with better broadband”
When internet service providers (ISPs) provide broadband to densely populated areas, they get an immediate return on investment — with rural areas, the return can take 20 years. “That’s why in Minnesota we need public dollars added to the pot,” said Joselyn. “In order to give providers an incentive to build where they otherwise wouldn’t.”
Elsewhere, some of the world’s largest companies are stepping in to fill the gaps where ISPs see no profit. Microsoft recently announced a scheme to close the rural broadband gap in the US within five years. It plans to expand wireless internet using TV White Space, the unused spectrum of UHF television bands, which was used to transmit television to rural areas before satellite technology.
Microsoft has calculated that 80% of the US’s underserved rural population will be connected to wireless broadband this way. Over the next few years, it will invest directly in local partnerships with telecommunications companies to bring broadband connectivity to two million people in rural America by 2022. And the approach is comparatively cheap: in a statement, Microsoft’s President and Chief Digital Officer Brad Smith said that this technology mix would cost roughly 80% less than using fiber cables alone.
For companies like Microsoft, the value in such investments is indirect. By providing better internet connections, they cultivate future customers: the people who currently find it difficult to get the most out of their products or services.
Training the townsfolk
Yet improving connectivity isn’t the whole of the answer. As Joselyn suggested, it is unrealistic to expect high-speed internet connections alone to prevent rural areas emptying or ageing. Instead, organisations, governments and communities are working to train rural residents to use broadband to improve their services and businesses for themselves.
Since 2016, the Bavarian government has helped foster innovation in rural areas. With “Digitales Dorf”, the state will spend $2.3 million to turn two areas in northern and southern Bavaria into experimental “model villages”.
“Broadband installation isn’t a part of the project. ‘Digitales Dorf’ is intended to support services in rural areas, namely by improving their digital capabilities and connecting them with one another,” said Bomeisl, whose team at the Technische Hochschule Deggendorf is leading the project in the south.
The project’s architects will link local businesses and services to a central digital platform that will help them find technological solutions to local problems. These include electric bus services and a mobile farmer’s market to help local producers and get groceries to isolated rural areas. The emphasis of the project is on building a community and providing it with the tools to innovate. “The findings from the project should advance further digitisation across Bavaria and the Germany overall,” said Bomeisl.
Training plays a similar role in Minnesota. “Communities themselves describe that what they need as digital literacy training,” said Joselyn. “We do projects that demonstrate the benefits of broadband-enabled services – like telemedicine – which help local government do more transactions online so they can provide services through the internet.”
As these examples show, keeping people in rural areas and attracting new residents requires more than a broadband connection alone. The lure of opportunity, higher pay, and variety of work is still likely to draw young people out of the countryside and into the city. What broadband can do is make sure that those who live there don’t suffer disadvantages that make their lives more difficult, worsen their quality of healthcare and limit their business opportunities.
It will also provide customers, which is surely why Microsoft is investing in TV White Space and Facebook is beaming internet from drones.
Over the long-term, digital improvements may help stabilise the populations and the ages of rural areas. Even in the short-term, it can have a big impact: after the Blandin Foundation helped set up better connections in a village in central Minnesota, a local artist increased his sales by 400% with a Facebook page.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Ryan-o)