Monday, 29 June 2015

Aspirations and challenges of rural communities: Bridging the rural digital divide globally

What is the first image that comes to mind when you think of a rural area and rural community?

A beautiful country-side; cows, sheep, chicken happily grazing. Maybe a well curated farm-house or dirt roads with dwellings with no water and electricity. How about huge stretches of farmland and make-shift markets. Or draft animals carrying heavy loads; villages and hamlets with few households; a quiet setting with no phones and internet access?

Last month while visiting "rural America", I came to realization that like everything in life, there is always more than just one truth. And in this case, the truth related to different flavors of "rural" and “rurality”.

I was intrigued by the idea of "rural America", and keen to see first-hand the similarities and differences between rural communities of the most advanced and richest country in the world and those of developing countries.

My visit to rural America took me from Berkeley to Mendocino county and more specifically to Point Arena and Manchester in Northern California.

My interest in visiting “rural America”  was to see first-hand the challenges and opportunities of bridging rural digital divide. I found the concept of “rural digital divide” in the United States quite a paradox. And especially so in Northern California, considering that Mendocino county is only 200 miles away from the Silicon Valley.

Difference and similarities of rural areas
Thanks to the excellent road infrastructure – albeit a good stretch of winding roads -  my 140 mile journey to “rural America” took about three hours. This was definitely a different experience from a similar journey in a developing country.
Those of you familiar with the rural roads can attest that undertaking a similar journey in a developing country could take anywhere between six to 12 hours.

Rural America, unlike its developing countries counterparts, not only has good road network, but it also provides its communities with other basic infrastructure and amenities, such as water, electricity, schools and health clinics.

However, surprisingly it seems to lag behind when it comes to connectivity and internet access and the percentage of underserved rural communities is quite staggering.

I had the privilege of meeting and interacting with the Mendocino county communities. On the one hand listening to their challenges and aspirations confirmed the fact that rural challenges are universal. On the other hand, I was surprised and taken back by the fact that the rural communities of  the most technological advanced nation in the world shared the same challenges of accessaffordability and adoption rate as their African, Asian and Latin American brothers and sisters:

One of the common characteristics of any rural area - be it in developed or developing countries - is the fact that these areas typically have a low population density, depend on agriculture and offer little or no employment opportunities for the younger generation.

Mendocino county which covers a total of 10,040 km of surface has a  population of approximately 87,192 people. The town of Point Arena has 449 people; Albion has a population of 225; 210 people live in Manchester and Gualala and Sea Ranch have a population of respectively 2093 and 1305.

The entire county is faced with the challenge of youth out-migration who are leaving for bigger cities in search of better employment opportunities. This outmigration is caused not only because of lack of job opportunities, but also because of inadequate internet connectivity, thus preventing the youth to work from home.

The youth exodus to larger cities has negatively impacted the agriculture sector, caused a decline in real estate and slowly is changing the social fabric of Mendocino county and transforming it as a destination for pensioners and retirees.

Internet connectivity: A basic need and global good public service
The prime goal of any private sector company across the world is to make profit. And private sector companies - despite their social corporate responsibility arms - want to do business and invest when they are sure they will make profit.

So, it is no surprise that incumbent telecom companies are keen to invest in highly-populated areas, as they see promising business opportunity. Sadly, big telecom companies shy away from investing in infrastructure or providing services to rural areas with sparse and low population density, simply because this type of investment is not profitable.

You can see this trend not only in developing countries, but also in developed countries. And yet everyone knows that connectivity can and will help reverse youth outmigration, boost tourism sector and provide better opportunities across the board.

The people of Point Arena and Manchester were faced with connectivity challenges. However, the stars aligned for them and today they are lucky enough and can benefit from internet access thanks to services provided by

The FurtherReach/Celerate project is a De Novo Group initiative made possible thanks to a grant from and in collaboration with scientists at Berkeley and Stanford.  

FurtherReach provides free wifi services to public areas and thanks to the affordable broadband Internet access, dial-up is now history for “rural communities” benefitting from these services!

The advent of affordable internet serviced by FurtherReach has led to creation of “technology centers”. This in turn is allowing people in the lower income bracket to take advantage of connectivity. Those previously excluded from the digital world are now getting acquainted with and benefit from the marvels of technology. This has led to increased job opportunities and more importantly has been a catalyst for rural communities to have their voices heard.

There is more than what meets the eye
The recent Pew Internet Research “Americans’ Internet Access: 2000-2015” states that “rural citizens are less likely to use internet.” It goes on to say “Rural communities tend to have a higher proportion of residents who are older, lower-income, and have lower levels of educational attainment – additional factors associated with lower levels of internet adoption.”

The above statement presents just one side of the story. It does not however explain that one of the many reasons for a low adoption rate is the fact that major telecom incumbents do not find investing in rural areas with low population density attractive enough, therefore these areas lack basic infrastructure, which means they cannot avail of internet access.

My trip to "rural America" made me realize that if connectivity is a challenge in the most technologically advanced country of the world and for communities 200 miles away from the cradle of technology, what should the development community do and what types of policies and interventions are needed to advocate for bridging the rural digital divide in developing countries?

Love to hear your views, ideas and insights.......
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