Is high-speed internet access the key to small towns' survival?

Feb 20, 2013

Is high-speed Internet the way to attract more people to live in rural Missouri? One MU professor seems to think so. First – let’s dial back a little bit. In a story that KBIA aired on Feb. 13, our reporter Lukas Udstuen investigated the story of Goss, a rural town in Monroe County, Missouri. Its population? Zero.

Goss was never a big town. At its peak size around the time of World War II, the town had about 30 residents. But as a post-war economy grew, Goss slowly withered away. Udstuen found as rural roads got better, the town’s residents stopped depending on the town’s small businesses and began going to bigger towns for their daily needs. It was a vicious cycle: As people began to leave town for access to basic amenities, the local businesses closed up, driving people away even more.

Every census throughout the 20th century shows that rural communities across the U.S. are losing population. Millions left rural America for urban America. Usually, when there’s growth in rural areas, it’s unsteady and unsustainable. In 2010, census data show only 16 percent of America’s population live in rural areas. That’s about 50 million people – the lowest number it’s ever been in U.S. history.

For his story, Udstuen interviewed Brian Dabson – an MU professor whose expertise is in economic development and rural entrepreneurship. Dabson believes disappearing rural residents will hurt the rest of America.

“We rely on viable rural areas for all sorts of things,” Dabson said. “Clean air, clean water, production of food, increasingly the production of energy. We have to have people who are stewards of these and people have to live in these [rural] areas to look after them.”

But asking people to live in areas where facilities such as hospitals, schools and grocery shops are closing is a tall order. Dabson’s solution: provide rural areas with access to high-speed Internet, or broadband – basically, not dial-up connection.

“We thought of it once upon a time as just being a luxury, but broadband access seems to be something critical to the future of small towns,” Dabson said.

High-speed Internet makes distance learning and telemedicine more viable for rural areas where physical schools and hospitals are scarce.  

“Broadband is going to be as important for the future of small towns as water supply, roads, telephone and electricity and the rest of it,” Dabson said.

Missouri is moving toward providing faster Internet to more of its residents. With funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Gov. Jay Nixon launched the MoBroadbandNow initiative in 2009. The goal is to provide broadband access to 97 percent of Missourians by 2014.

In its latest numbers report, MoBroadbandNow said 90 percent of rural Missourians now have access to broadband – though the report doesn’t quite define what “access” exactly means, nor does it specify the speed of the broadband connection. 

“I applaud all the efforts by the federal government and the state to bring access to just about every corner of the state,” Dabson said. “But before we sit back and say ‘Okay, just about everyone’s got it,’ I think we do need to pay attention to things like speed and quality. New technology doesn’t stand still. You’ve got to keep moving and pushing that bar.”

At the time of the writing of this blog, MoBroadbandNow has yet to respond to KBIA’s inquiry about how it defines access.