Recently, researchers have begun to devote special attention to the impact of broadband on the economic development of rural communities. Studies done by Brian Whitacre and Roberto Gallardo underscore the impact of broadband adoption on the overall economic development of rural regions.
According to these studies, presented as part of a BroadbandUSA program webinar, in rural counties with “high levels of broadband adoption (60+%)” median household income rose over twice as quickly as it did in counties that were otherwise similar but had lower levels of broadband adoption.
The same study showed that in those counties with high rates of broadband adoption, unemployment levels grew at only one third the rate that they rose in similar counties with lower adoption
In tandem with these findings, Whitacre and Gallardo also noted the negative consequences for economic development when broadband adoption rates are low. Here the studies show that almost twice as many jobs were lost in rural communities in which broadband adoption rates are low (<40%) than in similar communities with high adoption.
This data highlights the ways in which broadband adoptioncan have clear and positive impacts for rural communities. The time frame of the study (10 years) shows the rapid short term improvements to rural economic development that high rates of broadband adoption can bring.
During its 2017 session the New Mexico legislature will be considering several bills relevant to the expansion of broadband in the state. These efforts, all of which were sponsored by Michael Padilla, make changes to policies impacting broadband infrastructure investment and jurisdiction aimed at improving and expanding delivery of high speed internet in the state.
SB 24 amends the infrastructure Development Zone Act, which sets guidelines for local development of state infrastructure projects. The amendment extends the definition of telecommunications services, which previously specified only cable and fiber optic transmission, to include “any broadband technology infrastructure.” This opens the door for supporting other broadband technologies such as TV white space and fixed wireless.
SB 53 addresses the New Mexico telecommunications act, which provides jurisdiction over broadband infrastructure. This bill would “extend…regulatory flexibility previously provided only to incumbent telecommunications carriers” to “all consumers and telecommunications companies in the state,” leveling the regulatory field across providers and increasing competition. Competition between telecommunication providers is widely perceived as a positive driver towards both improvements in service options and lower costs for all services.
The final bill addressing broadband, SB 143, introduces the New Mexico Infrastructure Investment Act. This act would “allow the state and local governments to enter into long-term partnerships with private sector partners to facilitate public projects.” (quoted from SB 143). Engagement in public-private partnerships (often referred to as P3s) is a widely implemented and successful strategy for effectively developing and deploying broadband, especially in rural and other under-served regions in which projected take rates are often not high enough to inspire infrastructure build out by the telecommunications industries. The use of P3s was one of several “innovative ways to deliver connectivity to all New Mexicans” discussed by experts and stakeholders in the interim hearings of the Science, Technology, and Telecommunications Committee, as reported by the Silver City Sun News in its recent article on the SB 143. It is widely recognized that the economic opportunities, educational advantages, and healthcare services now provided by broadband make access to this critical infrastructure a necessity for all citizens.
Conventional use has differentiated between blue and white collar employment largely on the basis of skills. Blue collar work was typically seen as more manual. While many blue collar jobs do require expertise, few were seen to engage the office-based skills typically associated with white collar positions.
But the development of digital technologies has changed all of this. Not only will technical skills become standard for blue collar employment; the majority of new digital employment opportunities are likely to be in blue collar fields. A 2015 article in Forbes points to the many new local, “digitally enabled,” blue collar jobs that have been created in recent years, such as drivers for Uber, managers for Airbnb, and handymen for TaskRabbit. In the language of a 2016 report from Accenture Consulting, technology isn’t removing blue collar positions as much as it is making them all increasingly “digitally augmented.” All of these jobs will require increasing levels of digital skills.
This change means that training for blue collar positions must shift accordingly. So far, however, it has not adequately kept pace with the changing needs. As a result, many blue-collar positions that require some level of technical capacity go unfilled. As a result, states are scrambling to address these workforce gaps. One way to do so is to simply raise the baseline of digital skills that workers bring with them into the workplace. “Digital literacy is becoming increasingly important as the prevalence and role of automation grows.” Another solution, one that focuses on higher level technical positions, is to provide coding bootcamps that that offer intensive training and produce job ready candidates. In all cases, states, schools, and training programs are recognizing that retraining the blue-collar workforce is essential for economic growth.
New Mexico is preparing the future workforce by providing students with more opportunities to learn hands-on skills that align with today’s work environment. One example of this is the ACE Leadership High School in Albuquerque, which develops technical capacity in students interested in entering the construction profession. Basic requirements in math, science and language are integrated into projects focused on construction and engineering, fields that rely heavily on technology. Other training programs, such as the Workforce Development Program at UNM Gallup Community Education, focus on more traditional training such as that for the commercial drivers license. But even these programs require the ability to use digital skills to maintain computerized log books, manage computerized equipment controls, and perform computer-based equipment safety checks.
While these jobs are unlikely to become completely mechanized in the near future, increasing levels of technical expertise for blue collar work can be expected.
The New Mexico Department of Information Technology is currently undertaking a study in order to identify gaps and optimize plans for expanding broadband infrastructure to better meet the needs of New Mexico businesses. Columbia Telecommunications Corporation, a nationally recognized engineering and business consulting firm, has begun to review information about existing broadband in commercial corridors and to analyze information on the diversity of service providers in urban, suburban, and rural areas. The goal is to identify service gaps and make recommendations that will enable the state to plan actions for providing better access and speeds to business and commercial enterprises. A preliminary summary of the study, presented before the New Mexico Legislative Interim Committee on Science, Technology, and Telecommunications in October, “recommends levers for enabling and incenting investment” that will attract “private capital” for increasing “broadband deployment… in the state.”
For more about the divisions in broadband access, quality, and use between urban, suburban, and rural areas, refer to information about broadband in rural communities.
In Santa Fe, interim legislative committees are meeting this month to give preliminary review to key issues that will be under consideration when the 2017 legislative session convenes in January. Amongst the topics under discussion is the expansion of broadband in New Mexico.
Convened under the guidance of Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, the Committee on Science, Technology, and Telecommunications began to hear information on the needs, deployment and specifications for extending broadband service in the state. Amongst the presentations heard by the committee members were: Dr. Dale Alverson and Terry Boulanger highlighting the need for high speed internet to enable new applications in telehealth and telemedicine; representatives from the Public Education Department discussing the need to provide all students, teachers and families with reliable high speed internet connections; comments from economic organizations on the importance of broadband service for business growth and employment expansion in the state; and updates from a panel of cable and telecommunications companies on the progress, barriers, and plans to extend broadband infrastructure most effectively.
In community training centers in Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Texas, students are getting the digital skills training they need to be successfully placed in telework positions with one of over 60 vetted and reputable companies. Through a program called Digital Works, centers are leveraging the rapid increase in telework positions over the past five years to advantage by offering focused training that prepares applicants for the specific tasks performed in call centers, customer service departments, and tech support divisions. In addition to lowering unemployment and upgrading participants’ technical skills, the centers enhance the profile of their local workforce, making their communities more attractive to higher tech, higher paying, companies.
The success of the program is attested to not only by its high rate of placement (80%) but by the high retention rate (91%) of its graduates. These factors are due in part to the support Digital Works provides. Participants work in an encouraging environment and are coached in soft skills such as interview strategies. According to one program observer, the mentorship provided by the program is a key factor in promoting student success.
The Summer 2016 issue of Ed Tech reports on several programs across the country that are leveraging mobile hot spot technology to increase access to broadband for all students within certain school districts. Innovative programs in New York, Virginia, and Texas are using this technology to expand access to school internet networks on school buses, in student homes, and, in some cases, into the communities beyond. By equipping buses with mobile wifi and providing free hotspot devices or SIM cards to eligible students, these districts are making it possible for all of their students to make full use of school digital learning resources, regardless of family income.
According to Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking. “digital access in the home is now the most critical inequity” for students and schools across the country. In many schools, especially those in more economically disadvantaged areas, hundreds of students may be without home internet access and thus unable to complete assignments or have access to learning resources. This “homework gap” can lead to real disparities in performance between those students with broadband access at home and those without. “Just as we wouldn’t tell a child whether or not they can have a textbook based on their address, we don’t think that that should be the case with their ability to access digital resources either,” says CIO Vincent Scheivert of the Albemarle Public Schools in Virginia. By leveraging existing broadband networks provided through cell phone signals, mobile hotspots can bring full access to students without home broadband, thereby increasing their participation, improving their performance, and effectively closing the homework gap for students in their districts.
During the past 10 years, book publishing and reading have moved into digital formats and become online activities. Libraries, long understood as institutions that centered on the printed book and its reading, were imagined to be on their way out. Yet in the digital age, in which books and information exist mostly in digital format, libraries have become more important to communities than ever before. Not only do they remain key local resources for information and data, now provided through a variety of platforms including digital; in many communities, they have also come to act as key, and sometimes sole, providers of access to the internet. In small towns, rural areas, and low-income regions, in which broadband connections may be unavailable or too costly to afford, the free connection that libraries offer gives residents their only opportunity for using email, completing homework assignments, searching on Google, or filling out online job applications.
Libraries are now expanding the access to broadband that that provide by checking out mobile hotspots, devices that allow patrons to connect to the internet from their homes. The hotspots, which utilize cell phone internet signals to connect to the internet, provide adequate broadband to allow individuals to run a small number of computing devices using the hotspot as a kind of “router.” This makes it possible for individuals in areas with cell coverage to complete online tasks outside of the library. Like the books they loan, libraries check out hotspots at no cost and lend them from one month to one year.
Learn more about the use of mobile hotspots by libraries:
The use of broadband has expanded rapidly over the past five years. More and more people use the internet for work, commerce, and communication, as well as for a source of news, information and entertainment. The internet also helps people find employment, succeed in school, and keep in touch with family and friends.
Despite these changes, broadband adoption in the home has recently declined. Many still lack or are unable to afford this critical service, forming a digital divide that creates disadvantages for those without service.
This divide is especially critical in rural and low income areas, and is a pressing concern for many New Mexico communities. According to the Intelligent Community Institute at Mississippi State University, the key indicators for the digital divide include low population density as well as socioeconomic factors such as education levels and income. New Mexico high rural nature, high levels of poverty and low educational achievement, all contribute to the state’s large digital divide. This is especially pronounced in counties that are most characterized by these factors, such as Catron, Guadalupe, Hidalgo, Luna, Quay, Sierra and Socorro County.
The White House 2016 report on the digital divide underscores the persistence of the digital divide with almost one third of households still lacking broadband service at home. The good news is that recognition of these gaps has spurred an increase in funding for broadband service. Other funding programs, such as promise neighborhoods, bring advantages to neighborhoods committed to providing multi-layered systems of support for educational success for children within their communities.
During this campaign year, politicians have helped to focus public attention on the economic plight that many working Americans have experienced in recent years. Recovery from the great recession of 2008-09 and the improvements in economic indicators overall have done little to reassure a large sector of the workforce, who continue to see job security decline and wages fail to keep up with the increasing cost of living. The words of political candidates and reporters often cast these concerns in simplified language that casts employment and wage issues within a narrow framework defined by declines in manufacturing and construction and current trade policy. As a result, many seek solutions through the resuscitation of manufacturing, the creation of a robust infrastructure improvements program, or a re-structuring of American foreign trade policies.
While the appeal of a return to better times that these solutions conjure may hold special sway during an election season, this mix of hope and nostalgia obscures the more nuanced and sophisticated conversations that economists and business leaders are having about the transformation of the modern global workplace. Work, they argue, is relying increasingly on the use of numerically controlled machines (robots) in production and on technical skills and knowledge exchange globally. As these trends have increased, they have altered existing patterns of economic growth and the nature of work itself, resulting in job losses in some sectors and rapid growth in others. The generator of these shifts is neither trade policy nor job creation programs, but rather the expansion of technology and its use. According to this analysis, Americans who have lost jobs or seen their earnings decline are not feeling the fallout of bad government policy or poor economic growth, but are experiencing the dislocations and upheaval brought by larger shifts that new technologies of the workplace have created. This view also suggests that there is little to be gained from attempting to move the dial of the economic clock back to a time of prosperity founded on an earlier model of manufacturing production. In the new digital economies, the central driver of growth is technology and its applications. We would, it seems, be better advised to focus on developing the skills needed to participate in this transformed world of work.
To prepare our workforce for a digital economy and technology-based workplace, training in a wide range of skills will be required. Information literacy, interpretation and management of data, and the capacity to apply digital tools with creativity, innovation, and flexibility will all become standard requirements for employment. Communication and collaboration will be as vital as the high-level programming techniques associated with constructing robotic devices. The successful acquisition of these talents will depend on a foundation of reliable broadband service coupled with a network of training and outreach programs. The need for these services will be greatest in rural and depressed areas in which economic disruption has already destabilized families and communities. In New Mexico, such communities are numerous. Leveraging the resources to deploy these services and training programs would help our population move into the technically demanding jobs characteristic of emerging digital economies. It would also develop a strong foundation from which New Mexicans could construct ongoing and sustainable economic development within the state.