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Broadband, Digital Literacy and Rural Prosperity

February 12, 2013


In June 2006, Auburn University’s Economic & Community Development Institute (ECDI) hosted the Alabama Rural Roundtable. This event brought together about 60 key decision-makers and community leaders to talk about how to promote prosperity in rural Alabama. Roundtable participants identified three priority areas: 1) Leadership and Citizen Participation, 2) Education and Workforce Development, and 3) Communications Technology. While the first two issues are integral to improved rural prosperity, the focus of this blog is on the third priority identified by rural stakeholders – improving the rural communications infrastructure.

The electronic information highway has now joined electricity and roads as a core infrastructure. In the new global economy, community access to broadband is essential for economic prosperity. A study by the Brookings Institution shows that for every percentage point increase in national broadband penetration, employment expands by almost 300,000 jobs. For many companies and industries, transportation of data, images, voices, and sound is at least as important, if not more so, than the transportation of goods by highway, rail, and air. Communities without access to high-speed Internet cannot compete in the 21st Century economy.

Access to high-speed Internet is also vital to the success and well being of individuals throughout Alabama. People can save time and money by paying bills, applying for jobs, doing their taxes, and banking online. People can access social networks to strengthen their ties with faraway friends and family. Students can use high-speed Internet to improve their academic performance and prepare for future jobs. In many cases, persons without Internet access are unable to even apply for jobs or government benefits.

Unfortunately, only 56 percent of Alabama households have broadband access, ranking 48th in the nation. Only 47 percent of Alabama’s rural households have access to broadband. Clearly, improving the communications infrastructure must be a top priority for bringing prosperity to rural Alabama communities.

While cost and availability are huge barriers to broadband adoption, nearly half of America’s rural residents without a home broadband connection say they don’t subscribe because they have no need for broadband. This represents a tremendous opportunity for educational outreach to increase digital literacy. Raising awareness of the benefits of high-speed Internet and creating digitally-literate citizens is an important first step toward increasing the level of demand needed to expand the communications infrastructure into underserved parts of the state. The following section highlights many of these benefits.

Benefits of Broadband

Rural Populations
• Many business activities that require exchanges of large amounts of data, such as telemedicine and e-commerce, become feasible for rural communities.
• Rural businesses are able to expand their market reach across the nation and even the world.
• Youth and adult learners in rural areas can access the same Internet resources as students and workers in the most affluent suburbs, including online courses.
• Rural residents have direct access to healthcare services, and are not forced to travel long distances for medical treatment.
• Farmers are able to connect to other farmers for advice and gain real-time access to vital information such as crop prices, weather forecasts, and marketing opportunities.

Low-Income Populations
• Low-income residents can obtain advanced job skills, apply for jobs online, access health care resources, and apply for online assistance from social service agencies.

Senior Citizens
• Seniors can connect directly with their doctors for home-based health monitoring.
• They can monitor their bank accounts, pay bills, use online search engines, shop online, register for nutrition vouchers, and research government benefits and guidelines.
• They can stay connected to distant family and friends. They are able to send and receive emails or even have a video chat with grandkids.

People with Disabilities
• People with disabilities can participate in everyday activities such as employment, education, and social connections.
• People who are deaf, or hard-of-hearing, and those with speech disabilities can utilize live streaming video and instant text communication, liberating them from dependency on a traditional phone.
• People with physical disabilities can attend classes remotely, consult online with faraway medical specialists, telecommute, or apply online for jobs, eliminating the need for unnecessary or difficult commutes or trips.
• People who are blind or visually-impaired can search the Internet, understand videos, and communicate online using programs that read text and describe visual contents aloud in a synthetic voice or a Braille display.
• People who are deaf can use video relay services (VRS) to have phone conversations in sign language by means of an online interpreter.

Youth and Adult Learners
• Learners at every level of education, from kindergarten through graduate school, can enhance learning opportunities through online curricula and interactive Internet applications.
• Workers can gain vital skills training needed to secure employment and move beyond entry-level jobs, whether it be through getting a college degree online or completing an online worker training program.
• Busy parents can confer with their students’ teachers more frequently.
• Students can have access to superior teachers and experts from outside their region, as well as online resources including lecture videos, library databases, and teacher e-mail correspondence.
• Students or workers can form online social networks to share educational and training resources or work together on group projects.
• Adults with irregular or inflexible work schedules can access online educational opportunities.
• Industry specialists in remote areas can share their knowledge with a wider audience of workers.
• Young students can become competent with technologies they will need in the adult job market.

E-government and Civic Engagement
• Citizens can interact with government agencies more easily and participate more fully in civic life.
• Citizens can complete government forms online. This is faster and more convenient than hard copies delivered through regular mail. In fact, some forms are now only available online.
• Citizens and businesses can obtain information about government policies, procedures, benefits, and programs.
• Citizens can access many government services electronically, including business filings, online car registration, and analysis of Medicare prescription drug options.
• Citizens can communicate with their elected officials or other candidates through e-mail, online petitions, and social networks.
• Citizens can participate in public government meetings via two-way video streaming.
• Citizens can connect with like-minded individuals to organize politically, participate in online campaigns, and make their voices heard via online social networks or other civic engagement tools that are readily available online.

Health Care
• Telemedicine – the delivery of quality health-related services and information using telecommunications technologies – has the potential to greatly expand access, increase efficiencies, and reduce the costs of medical care.
• Patients can have access to remote diagnoses, treatment, and monitoring. This includes real-time transmission of medical imagery to enable remote interpretation of MRI, ultrasound, X-rays, and other diagnostic procedures – enabling rapid diagnosis.
• Doctors can work together as a virtual team with specialists located in any part of the world.
• Patient transfers, such as from a nursing home to a doctor’s office, can be significantly reduced though remote monitoring and online consultations.

Public Safety
• Police, fire and emergency medical personnel can react to crises more quickly, while facilitating cooperation among multiple public safety agencies.
• Public safety officers can quickly access online resources, connect to network-enabled devices, and rapidly transfer critical video and data files during emergency situations.
• First responders can receive local maps, and multiple responders from numerous agencies can view the same images and data simultaneously.
• Fire and police commanders can direct on–the-ground police and fire units using voice, video, and data-enhanced communications.
• Emergency workers can communicate across disparate networks, between jurisdictions, and across different agencies – critical capabilities at the scene of an emergency.
• Images and fingerprints of suspects, video clips of criminal activity, and layouts of target areas can be downloaded to police vehicle computers.

Boosting Broadband to Bridge the Digital Divide in Alabama

Overall_Marketing_Postcard_Page_1[1]The Economic & Community Development Institute (ECDI) and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System are currently leading a project to raise awareness about broadband benefits in Alabama. Other project partners include the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs and the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. Each of Alabama’s 67 county Extension offices is offering training courses to help residents learn more about the benefits and practical applications of broadband technologies.

ECDI has developed the following twelve training modules that describe broadband’s benefits and practical uses:

Introduction to the Internet and Broadband 101
E-Home: Managing homes, families, and finances
E-Community: Engaging community residents and organizations
E-Commerce: Strategies and tools for entrepreneurs and small business
E-Government: Making government more responsive and accessible
E-Learning: Tools and resources for learners
E-Learning: Tools and resources for educators
E-Global: Accessing international markets
E-Health: Tools and resources for patients and healthcare consumers
E-Health: Tools and resources for medical practitioners
E-Workforce: Learning skills and finding jobs
E-Public Safety: Resources for police, fire, and emergency service personnel

Each County Extension Coordinator will also facilitate a Connected Community forum in their county. This forum will engage a wide cross-section of community members in discussing opportunities and challenges related to broadband.

As more Alabamians understand and take advantage of the many opportunities offered through high-speed Internet, we will see citizens’ quality of life enhanced in addition to new economic opportunities for rural communities. ECDI and the Alabama Cooperative Extension are excited to be a part of this important initiative.

For an expanded version of this blog, click here. For more information about the Boosting Broadband to Bridge the Digital Divide project, contact ECDI at 334-844-4704 or email me at

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 14, 2014 4:05 am

    HI, my name is Victor I searched high speed internet availability , and found your page- Broadband, Digital Literacy and Rural Prosperity …,Useful info. Lucky me I found your web site accidentally, and I am stunned why this twist of fate did not took place in advance!

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