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Reviving Small Towns and Rural Communities

headshot of Jeff Babbitt

July 6, 2023
By Jeff Babbitt
Sr. Manager Partner Marketing

With the Biden administration announcing per-state distribution of Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), I had cause to reflect on my childhood and the rural places many of my family members call home.  While some small rural towns have been able to thrive and prosper, many of them have seen declines in population for quite some time, especially those where agriculture is the main employer. The population of rural counties dropped by 289,000 between 2010 and 2020. In those declining rural towns, there has been a slow flight to cities, mostly driven by technological advances that make farming and other rural occupations much more efficient, leading to fewer local jobs. According to Daily Yonder, “Six Out of 10 Rural Counties Lost Jobs in Last Two Decades.”

As the information revolution unfolded, the internet began to offer more and more value and opportunity to those who had access to it. As with many investment cycles, initial investment focused on markets that would address the highest possible population and potential customer base. Due to the number of people and amount of disposable income available in cities and larger towns, these areas attracted the initial investments for high-speed broadband access, bringing good access to the internet to these localities. This was typically not the case, though, for smaller towns and rural areas, where access to the internet is often significantly lower and, in the case of a few remote locations, even nonexistent. This has led to a “digital divide.”

There are many well-documented issues associated with the digital divide. Areas with inadequate access to the internet experience reductions in income, education, health, and economic development, to name just a few. As the Wilson Center reported in April of 2023, “The digital economy accounts for over 15% of global GDP and is growing two and a half times faster than total GDP over the past 15 years.” It is generally thought to be the dominant force behind innovation, growth, and job creation. You can’t participate in this growth if you don’t have access to the internet.

Changing technology and evolving business attitudes can help to reverse prior declines and even drive growth. In the last two years, at least a dozen of my friends and coworkers have moved from cities back to small towns, empowered by work-from-home (WFH) policies and enabled by the availability of high-capacity broadband services. During the pandemic, businesses learned that many jobs are just as effective or even more productive when employees are working from home, and businesses can draw from a broader, geographically diverse talent pool. Although some companies are encouraging employees to return to the office or moving toward a hybrid model, many WFH jobs are here to stay, and some states and towns are offering incentives for people with WFH jobs to relocate to their communities.

New rural broadband initiatives not only close the digital divide but transform small and rural communities in many ways, including contributing to a return to small towns. Infinera has participated in many rural broadband projects in recent years with very effective solutions. We have multiple deployments with Tier 3/Tier 4 telcos, consortiums, utilities, and cooperatives, such as Central Electric in Missouri and ECN in Quebec, which provide increased bandwidth for telecoms, data, and internet services to these small towns and rural communities. Many of these projects utilize a variety of funding sources, including federal programs such as the BEAD Program and the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which together are providing more than a $64B investment into broadband.

Some of these projects involve replacement of an existing optical transport network that has entered its end-of-life phase and cannot provide for the bandwidth growth requirements of the region, either because of limited capabilities or unavailability of the product. A modern Infinera solution offers enhanced features and benefits, such as 100G/200G/400G line rates, single-fiber working, Layer 2 aggregation, open architecture, compact modular form factor, Layer 1 encryption, and longer reach, delivering lower costs and increased value for service providers and their customers.

Infinera’s broadband solutions can help transform these regions into more vibrant and connected communities. These networks provide high-bandwidth access to the internet. The benefits of closing the digital divide include fostering economic growth, enhancing local business activities, improving individual opportunities, improving educational outcomes, strengthening social relations, and improving career opportunities with remote work-from-home jobs.

My entire extended family comes from a rural agricultural environment and many of them are still there. I feel like I am giving back to these communities with the benefits these projects bring to areas much like where I came from.

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