Louisiana has gotten more than $160 million in federal stimulus dollars to expand broadband Internet access in areas that have little or no broadband service.
Even so, the most-promising way to expanded access to wireless technology in rural America is through the private sector. That’s the message from Diane Smith, of Whitefish, Mont., the founder of TheNewRural.com, a group promoting entrepreneurship in rural America.
When Smith, a former telecommunication executive, moved from Washington, D.C., to the hamlet of Whitefish several years ago, she discovered the distance traveled was not only geographic, but cultural.
“When I worked in D.C., I knew plenty of patent lawyers, but not a single inventor,” Smith told a recent meeting of Advocate reporters and editors. “Within months after moving to Montana, I knew dozens of inventors, but only one patent lawyer.”
Smith uses the story to illustrate the divide that can separate rural entrepreneurs from the technical assistance they need to grow their ideas into successful businesses.
Increasingly, though, that divide is being bridged by wireless technology. “Obviously, many rural communities continue to confront infrastructure challenges, and for those rural locations where technology infrastructure is lacking, it’s particularly tough,” Smith writes in her new book, also called “The New Rural.com.” “But for rural areas that are beneficiaries of a sound 21st century technology infrastructure, the world that was once so far away is now knocking at the door. On the other side of that door are opportunities that now seem out of reach.”
To capitalize on technology, residents of rural America need more than infrastructure. They also need a solid education that enables them to use technology to their benefit. That’s a special concern in many parts of rural Louisiana, where educational attainment is low.
The point isn’t missed by Smith, who put good K-12 schools on her list of criteria when she and her family decided to leave Washington and relocate to a rural area.
Increasing broadband access for rural areas is fine. But for real economic progress to take hold, the age-old fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic can’t be ignored.