Connecting a Divided America

As Election Day 2016 approaches, the political division in America becomes increasingly obvious. The Associated Press recently published a revealing series of articles on Divided America, exploring the tensions and disconnects between different populations of the country. As one of its articles highlighted, one of the starkest political dividing lines in America today is the urban-rural divide. What is causing the ever-rising tension between these populations? Surely, there are a lot of factors at play—different lifestyles, different types of work, and exposure to different groups of people. But as technology becomes an ever-larger part of American life, one factor is a source of increasing disparity between urban and rural populations—telecommunications infrastructure and ability to connect to the Internet.

Professor Katherine Cramer of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who studies political attitudes in rural America, reports that rural Americans want better Internet connectivity, and they feel that their concerns are not being heard. According to Professor Cramer, “The lack of fast and efficient internet access impedes access to jobs and education, and perpetuates disparities in the quality of K-12 education between [] rural and more urban communities…. but better internet access could change that.”

But for rural Americans, progress in telecommunications infrastructure comes at a frustratingly slow pace. As with other infrastructure needs like improved roads, snow plowing, and even access to water, rural Americans’ needs routinely fall farther down the totem pole of priorities than those of urban Americans. If we are serious about uniting an increasingly divided country—whether we think we are ‘Stronger Together’ or we want to ‘Make America Great Again’—we cannot afford to leave rural America behind as technology rapidly advances.

Naturally, the raw economic incentives favor more telecommunications development for urban areas and less for rural areas, so it may take government regulation to spur development. Hillary Clinton has made part of her economic development platform a commitment that “100 percent of households in America will have access to high-speed, affordable broadband by 2020.”

However, some technology companies have taken initiative to explore economically feasible ways to expand Internet access to underserved areas. AT&T recently revealed plans for its AirGig system, which would use plastic antennas attached to existing power lines to wirelessly send broadband signal anywhere that has phone service. Google is also exploring a novel infrastructure plan—using high altitude balloons to wirelessly send Internet signal to large areas where it is impractical to lay wire.

Whatever method proves most effective, deploying better telecommunications infrastructure to rural America will be a major joint effort between telecommunications companies, the federal government, and state governments, but the effort it will yield lots of positive, long-term benefits. Children in rural schools will have better educational opportunities. Farmers will be able to more efficiently manage their farms with data analytics technology. Rural businesses will be able to make easier financial transactions, spurring economic development in small towns. And, as our roadways prepare for the advent of self-driving cars, better telecommunications infrastructure will allow autonomous vehicles to operate in rural areas.

In addition to the myriad economic and educational benefits, there will be an important psychological benefit to the country. Expanding telecommunications infrastructure in rural areas will bridge a gap between the “haves” in the cities and the “have-nots” in rural areas. It will help all Americans have access to the same technological resources, and it will help us move farther into the 21st Century as one country, united and connected.

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