Digital Infrastructure and tapping into the fierce power of rural advocacy
What are we really fighting for? Hint: it’s not Netflix
It’s election time in Canada, which means clarifying your position on issues that are important to your community. Rural communities everywhere have digital infrastructure on their list, but where it sits on that list varies widely from place to place.
Why isn’t digital infrastructure the top priority for all rural communities?
(By digital infrastructure I mean everything from broadband Internet to wireless service.)
In the U.S. the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) cites a lack of relevance as residents say they don’t have broadband at home because they have “no need” or “no interest.” That response is echoed in Canadian studies around digital adoption as well. In our own survey of small business owners during our Rural Coworking Pilot only 44% said that high speed Internet was critically important.
I get it.
If you’re retired and your community still has a bank, a doctor, a grocery store and cable tv, you may not care as much about high speed Internet. Technology can be expensive and frustrating (not to mention that it’s constantly changing). Sure, it would be great to have Netflix but it would be selfish to prioritize that over roads and housing.
Our list of priorities is focused on not losing any more of what we already have. Ironically, anything to do with getting ahead comes after everything to do with not falling further behind.
Here’s what we know:
Information Communications Technology can do both — prevent further loss AND allow communities to grow. The arguments are clear. According to PhD research being conducted in Canada, digital capital is a potentially critical resource that is already woven into every other community capital from cultural capital to financial capital. The suggestion is that it is an essential element for rural development. It falls into a body of research that is being conducted around the world. The extent of which digital capital could improve the outlook and prosperity of rural communities is staggering.
Still not enough?
How about this:
Your kids want to come home and they can’t do it without high-speed Internet and wireless service.
That’s right. High Speed Internet isn’t about being able to Skype with your children and grandchildren, it’s about being able to eat dinner with them. If you don’t want to do it for yourself — advocate for them.
The pattern for decades has looked like this: 20–24 year olds leave rural for the city (age group with the highest rate of out-migration) and 25–29 year olds return to rural (age group with the highest rate of in-migration). In 2008 they stopped coming home (the demographic replacement of the non-metro workforce in Canada fell below 100%) and it has continued that way ever since.
They made lives for themselves in cities. Employment opportunities in rural communities were few and far between for returning college and university students. But, being the smart kids that they are, millennials and the generation after them (GenZ), have figured out how to make a living online as entrepreneurs, remote workers and freelancers. Companies pay them to do work online. In fact, freelancers are predicted to make up the majority of our workforce within a decade. The problem of finding a job is no longer the issue it used to be because young people are bringing their own income with them.
They got themselves halfway home and now they’re counting on their families to get them the rest of the way.
Do they really want to come home?
It shouldn’t be a surprise that they do. They grew up with the same core values and are now having families of their own. I get emails and LinkedIn messages on a regular basis from freelancers and remote workers in their 20’s and 30’s, telling me their stories and asking for advice on how to move back home from the city. It’s always the same — they left to go to college or university, began their careers in the city and are now starting a family of their own and want to move back home. The issue isn’t entirely simple; they have a number of barriers from a lack of housing options to transportation issues, but the showstopper is always connectivity. They cannot earn their income without it.
You don’t have to look hard to find headlines like Signs of a rural renaissance as Canadian cities overheat and The Simple life: Generation Z and millennial freelancers head to the country. While the data is slower to reflect this shift there is absolutely a movement happening (U.S. Freelancers Increasing in Rural Areas | Digital Trends). Young rural professionals are even organizing and forming groups to support and encourage others trying to move back home (A Millennial (and friends) rethink rural).
They are homesick. If there’s one thing I know about the character and makeup of rural communities it’s that family comes first. For years now parents have watched with helplessness as their kids have left for urban centres, never to return. Even if your kids can’t or don’t want to leave the city, having a digital infrastructure in place will allow them to visit and stay for extended amounts of time because they are able to bring their work with them. It means longer visits with grandchildren.
A lot has changed over the years for rural communities but core values have not. Family is a core rural value that has remained consistent and strong.
Make no mistake, in not demanding high speed Internet from all levels of government representing you — you are preventing your children from coming home. Rural communities with a digital infrastructure will grow. Boomers in communities with high speed Internet will get to see their grandchildren play sports and act in plays. Family dinners in communities with excellent Internet and cell service will be on Sundays not Thanksgiving. So when the next political candidate knocks on your door to discuss issues that are important to you tell them this: no Internet — no vote.
Rural on Purpose is a social enterprise working with rural communities worldwide to envision and build a healthy, sustainable future — one that is both valued and valuable.
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