Rural Areas Are Looking for Workers. They Need Broadband to Get Them.

As a manufacturer of asphalt paving equipment, Weiler is exactly the kind of company that can benefit from the federal government increasing spending on roads and bridges. But when Patrick Weiler talks about infrastructure, the topic he first addresses has next to nothing to do with the core business of his company.

It is a broadband internet service.

Hamlet is located in Marion County, Iowa, a rural area southeast of Des Moines. Internet speeds are fine at the company’s 400,000-square-foot factory as Weiler paid to have a fiber optic cable run from the nearby freeway. But that doesn’t help the surrounding community, where broadband access can be spotty at best. This is a recruiting problem – already one of the greatest challenges for Weiler and many other rural employers.

“How do you get young people to return to these rural areas when they feel like they are returning to a timeframe of 20 years ago?” asked Mr. Weiler, the founder and managing director of the company.

Rural areas have complained for years that slow, unreliable, or simply unavailable internet access is limiting their economic growth. However, the pandemic has given these concerns renewed urgency, and at the same time President Biden’s infrastructure plan, which includes $ 100 billion to improve broadband access, has raised hopes that the problem could finally be addressed.

“It creates jobs that connect every American to high-speed Internet, including 35 percent of rural America that doesn’t yet have it,” Biden said of his plan in a speech to Congress last month. “This will help our children and our businesses thrive in the 21st century economy.”

Mr Biden received both criticism and praise for pushing for the scope of infrastructure to be expanded to include investments in childcare, health care and other priorities beyond the concrete-and-steel projects that the word normally evokes. However, ensuring Internet access is widespread. In a recent survey conducted by the online research platform SurveyMonkey for the New York Times, 78 percent of adults said they support broadband investments, including 62 percent of Republicans.

Companies have also consistently supported broadband investments. Major industry groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the National Association of Manufacturers issued policy recommendations last year calling for federal spending to close the “digital divide”.

Quantifying this gap and its economic cost is difficult in part because there is no agreed definition of broadband. In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission updated its standards to a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second. The Department of Agriculture drops its standard to 10 mps A non-partisan group of senators from rural states urged both agencies to raise their standards to 100 mps this year. Speed-based definitions don’t consider other issues like reliability and latency, a measure of how long it takes for a signal to travel between a computer and a remote server.

Regardless of the definition, analyzes time and again find that millions of Americans do not have access to reliable high-speed Internet access and that rural areas are particularly poorly served. A recent study by Broadband Now, an independent research group whose data is widely cited, found that 42 million Americans live in places where they cannot buy broadband Internet service, most of them in rural areas.

As defined by the FCC, most of Marion County has high-speed access to the Internet. However, residents report that service is slow and unreliable. And since only one provider serves a large part of the district, customers have little influence on asking for better service.

Marion County’s population of 33,000 has economic challenges common to rural areas: an aging workforce, anemic population growth, and a limited number of employers focused on a few industries. But it also has assets including proximity to Des Moines and a group of employers willing to train workers.

Local executives have plans to attract new businesses and a younger generation of workers – but those plans won’t work without better internet service, said Mark Raymie, chairman of the county board of supervisors.

“Our ability to diversify our economic base depends on modern infrastructure, and that includes broadband,” he said. “We can say, ‘Come and work here. ‘But if we don’t have modern amenities and modern infrastructure, this sales pitch falls flat. “

Mr. Weiler’s daughter, Megan Green, grew up in Marion County and then went to college to begin her career. When she moved home to work for her father’s company in 2017, it was like stepping back into an earlier technological era.

“Our cellular service is spottier, our wireless is more spirited and we definitely have only one choice,” said Ms. Green, 35. “It’s a generation thing. We depend on internet access. “

Ms. Green moved home for family reasons. However, it has been difficult to find others willing to do the same. Broadband is not the only factor – the lack of housing and childcare are also high – but it is an important factor. Recruiting is Weiler’s “No. A challenge, ”said Ms. Green, despite wages that start at around $ 20 an hour before overtime.

The experience of the past year has made the problem worse. When the pandemic hit last year, Weiler sent home all of the workers who didn’t have to be in the factory. But they quickly ran into a problem.

“I was shocked to know how many of our employees couldn’t work from home because they didn’t have reliable internet access,” said Ms. Green. “We’re talking seven minutes to download an email-type Internet connection.”

Other local businesses have had similar experiences. In June, the Greater Des Moines Partnership, a regional group of companies, commissioned a study to improve the digital infrastructure in the region. Given that the state and federal government are considering significant investments, the group hopes their study will give priority to funding, said Brian Crowe, director of the group’s economic development department.

For Marion County and other rural areas, the widespread experiment of working from home during the pandemic could represent an economic opportunity if infrastructure allows. Many companies have announced that they will allow employees to work remotely all or part of the time, which could give workers the opportunity to abandon city life and move to the countryside – or take jobs at companies like Weiler, while their spouses work from home.

“Suddenly you no longer have to move to the cities where these companies are located to work for leading companies,” said Adam Ozimek, chief economist at Upwork, a platform for freelancers. “It will create opportunities.”

However, broadband experts say that without government assistance, rural areas cannot access reliable, high-speed internet services. If a place doesn’t have internet access in 2021, there is a reason: Generally too few prospects, too dispersed to serve efficiently.

“The private sector is just not prepared to solve this problem,” said Adie Tomer, a Brookings Institution researcher who has investigated the problem. He compared the challenge of rural electrification almost a century ago, when the federal government had to step in to ensure that even remote areas had access to electrical energy.

“That is exactly what we saw in the 1910s, 20s and 30s in terms of economic history,” he said. “It’s really about cities being left behind.”

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