The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Want to close America’s rural-urban divide? Digital infrastructure is the key.


Jem Spectar is president of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown

In his State of the Union speech earlier this month, President Trump touched briefly on an area where he and Democrats could easily make common cause for the sake of the country: infrastructure. Yet by skipping over the details he missed an important opportunity to connect his rhetoric of greatness to something tangible, impactful and transformational.

The omission is particularly striking when you consider what the right kind of infrastructure program could do for rural America, a core part of Trump’s base. While metropolitan America surges forward, rural areas continue to be riven by an onslaught of demographic decline, loss of manufacturing jobs, rising poverty, opioid abuse, blight, insufficient capital, anemic investment, poor infrastructure and an abysmally low participation rate in the global digital economy.

Urgent infrastructure needs are placing a severe drag on the prospects of rural America and deepening the rural-urban divide. These communities desperately need school renovations, upgrades to water and sewage treatment systems, and improved transit to metropolitan centers.

Such improvements will, of course, take plenty of time, effort and money. But there’s one area where decisive action could have positive effects relatively quickly: the digital economy. The dearth of broadband Internet connectivity is the bane of many rural areas, exacerbating demographic decline by contributing to out-migration of millennials and loss of business opportunities.

The United States ranks low in comparison with other industrialized nations in broadband connectivity, and this is a particularly acute problem in rural areas, where 39 percent of people (more than 24 million Americans) lack high-speed Internet. (In urban communities, the figure is 4 percent.)

Providing broadband to rural have-nots will boost economic growth; Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has called it a “game-changer for rural Americans.” Several studies have shown the introduction of broadband connectivity correlates favorably with increasing job growth and economic productivity gains. For example, a 2016 World Bank report found GDP per capita growth is 2.7 percent to 3.9 percent higher after the introduction of broadband; every 10 percentage point increase in fixed broadband household penetration increases GDP per household by 0.77 percent. Transformative broadband investments will provide an economic stimulus, enabling Trump to deliver on his promise to lift up the “forgotten people” in his base.

Yet merely installing high-speed fiber-optic networks across rural America, while vital, will not be enough. Significant public and private investment in K-16 education is required to build a new digital economy future for rural America. In addition, innovative public-private partnerships, including university-community-industry-partnerships (UCIPs) can galvanize action around the urgency of digital literacy in rural areas. Key to this strategy would be significantly increasing participation in expanded coding and STEM programs from K-16 as well as vocational and workforce development programs.

An increasing number of entrepreneurial UCIPs are showing promising results. Companies such as Revature and Trilogy have been partnering with universities, including liberal arts colleges, to implement successful coding boot camps. Meanwhile, social media companies such as Facebook and Google have launched partnerships with universities and communities to close the digital skills gap. Microsoft is leading an ambitious effort in partnership with telecommunications companies to provide connectivity to up to 3 million rural Americans through its Airband projects. My institution, the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, is spearheading the CODE for Commonwealth and Country initiative, working with state government, industry and schools to enhance workforce readiness.

By increasing digital literacy, distressed communities can emerge as tech talent hot spots that generate higher-paying jobs, attract millennials and rejuvenate downtown areas. These rural hot spots will be attractive to businesses seeking lower-cost rural production compared to the relatively higher wages of metropolitan or foreign locations. Millennials who prefer the independence, affordability and comfort of stress-free telecommuting will gravitate to these hot spots, injecting new life into moribund main streets. Thriving ventures and rising incomes will provide an organic economic stimulus and mitigate rural-urban migration. With enhanced infrastructure and digital economy talent, perhaps companies such as Amazon may someday establish their new headquarters in rural towns that will be all too happy to embrace them.

Upgrading broadband infrastructure in rural America is a matter of great urgency. Trump’s omission of this issue is striking, given how strategic investments could transform rural areas that are facing the interlocking forces of globalization, digitization and automation. Failing to address these issues will deepen the chasm between rural and urban areas, with ominous implications for national cohesion.

Solving the problem will be anything but easy. Yet, to echo President John F. Kennedy, we should take on these hard things because it is part of our national character to do so. The great nation that choreographed the first moonwalk, wove the World Wide Web and hurled the Voyager into interstellar space confronts another pressing challenge. Closing the rural-urban digital gap will contribute to general prosperity and stability of a more perfect union.

Read more:

Art Cullen: Help wanted: Rural America needs immigrants

Letter: Rural America suffers from brain drain

Jennifer Rubin: As small-town America goes, so goes the nation?

Chuck Schumer: No deal on infrastructure without addressing climate change

Ronald A. Klain: Trump’s big infrastructure plan? It’s a trap.