Beyond the corridors where politicians preen is the country over which they fly. Unsung souls toil here, seldom regarded in the national discussion until an election rolls round at which point they are regarded perfunctorily. In the meantime, a gulf widens, locking prosperity in the places where it already dwells and sealing it from those where it does not.
This is the plight of rural America, scattered in the dust of revolutionary ages, from industrial to information to technology. Rural areas compose 97 percent of the country but less than a fifth of the U.S. population resides there. That accounts for politicians’ attention frequently being diverted to cities, where there are more ballots to be won. Still, 60 million rural people constitute a voting bloc, however widely disbursed and disenfranchised. So politicians take fleeting notice leading into November and shift their gazes after the polls close.
That scenario is helping propel rural regions into deepening oblivion. Few measures of this are more salient than internet speeds, a modern economic barometer in the fashion of running water and electricity in previous centuries. Average internet speeds in America’s rural areas are roughly equivalent to those in Third World countries, according to an annual report compiled by Akamai, a Massachusetts technology company.
Inhabitants of these places perhaps do not protest enough. Some are comfortable with time having forgotten them. People fitting this description favor a simpler life where one’s character is measured by sweat on the brow rather than the size of data plans. Outsiders can little understand this strange world, where the land is a thing to be worked rather than paved. For many rural Americans, this is home precisely as they would have it.
But the wheels of human progress are churning. Farms increasingly are dependent on internet access for daily operations. Other businesses similarly require high-speed access. Slack internet speeds are a means of leaving rural America behind. Those who live and work in these regions must demand better from their elected leaders.
Franklin County officials recognize the need. A $650,000 grant will help the county pay for six broadband projects serving the Summit View Business Park as well as a selection of local streets. That will, among other things, connect 615 homes to broadband from 29 miles of fiber. This is a start, but by no means is it the end.
Gov. Ralph Northam says he gets it. He trekked to Summit View earlier this month to announce the grant. “We’ve got to do everything we can to lift up rural Virginia,” the governor declared. “And the one thing I hear every day is we need universal broadband.”
Funding for the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative, aimed at expanding broadband to 660,000 homes and businesses, has more than quadrupled to $19 million. Northam sought a boost to $50 million. That he did not get it demonstrates some in Richmond are not yet sufficiently persuaded.
Rural Virginians must sound off on their own behalf. Future generations will reap what current generations sow.