Is it wise, or wasteful, to spend money on expanding Internet access to rural areas?
At first glance, perhaps no line item in the nearly $900 billion stimulus program under consideration on Capitol Hill would seem to offer a more perfect way to jump-start the economy than the billions pegged to expand broadband Internet service to rural and underserved areas.
Proponents say it will create jobs, build crucial infrastructure and begin to fulfill one of President Obama’s major campaign promises: to expand the information superhighway to every corner of the land, giving local businesses an electronic edge and offering residents a dazzling array of services like online health care and virtual college courses.
But experts warn that the rural broadband effort could just as easily become a $9 billion cyberbridge to nowhere, representing the worst kind of mistakes that lawmakers could make in rushing to approve one of the largest spending bills in history without considering unintended results.
A “cyberbridge to nowhere”? Some people thought similar things about putting telephone service, television, and highways into the same rural areas. In the 21st century, fast Internet access is as important as those. It’s critical infrastructure that’s needed for education, commerce, and public services. Denying it to some town in Nebraska — or upstate New York — because it’s not as profitable a market as urban and suburban areas are is not the best thing for the country as a whole.
We’re long past the days when we should want or expect farmers’ kids to stay farmers, or, indeed, that farmers are uneducated, unsophisticated hayseeds who need little more than a stack of pancakes and a good pair of boots. Technology reaches to every aspect of our modern life, and those in rural areas, whether they work the land locally, or the world through telecommuting, need the technological infrastructure that we have in the cities.
It’s certainly true that we shouldn’t just throw money at it without planning it and doing it right. And it’s true that it will likely be quite costly. But it will be more costly not to do it. From the facilities it will provide to rural residents and workers to the better education it’ll help give the next generation, it will be worth it.