In America's rural areas, the internet barely exists as you and I know it: People can't get broadband in their house; they use dial-up modems at home; and the only place they can hope to watch a YouTube video is the local library.
The Obama administration has dedicated $7.2 billion in stimulus money to fix the problem. And today brings a rash of tools to publicize it, including the first-ever National Broadband Map, created with the help of Stamen, a 2011 Most Innovative Company, which shows just how widespread (or not) high-speed access is across the U.S.
The tool is a lot wonkier than you'd hope, so it's easy to loose the crucial point, which is this: Today, only cities have access to true broadband access. And in fact, figures show that only 60% of those in rural America have broadband access -- a full 10% below the number in metropolitan areas.
City slickers might respond, "Who cares? If you want access to tech, you move to the city." But then again, consider the massive economic opportunities we're squandering. In cities, the internet has created a vast, sweeping increase in productivity and economic output -- just imagine how many more changes it could bring if the entire country could get access to it. Improved broadband access is truly low-hanging fruit, promising to bring easy economic boosts to areas in dire need of them.
The Times adds a bit more ballast to that:
"This is like electricity was," said Brian Depew, an assistant director of the Center for Rural Affairs, a nonprofit research group in Lyons, Neb. "This is a critical utility."
"You often hear people talk about broadband from a business development perspective, but it's much more significant than that," Mr. Depew added. "This is about whether rural communities are going to participate in our democratic society. If you don't have effective broadband, you are cut out of things that are really core to who we are as a country."
Affordable broadband service through hard wiring and or cellular phone coverage could revolutionize life in rural parts of the country. People could pay bills, shop and visit doctors online. They could work from home and take college classes.
Increasingly, interacting with certain branches of government can be done only online. And sometimes, a lack of cellphone or e-mail access can have serious consequences. Emergency alerts regarding severe weather, for example, are often sent only through text or e-mail.
Explore the National Broadband Map here.