Making the final connection: rural broadband adoption

While the problems of rural internet connectivity are not yet fully resolved, a coalition of groups has come together to consider the next problem: that of internet adoption.  

Last week I attended a "Beyond Access" round-table meeting, co-sponsored by the Alberta Rural Development Network, to address issues facing the widespread adoption of internet use in rural Alberta. I was somewhat surprised by this theme, as I had never considered the possibility that there are people who are not eagerly embracing the Internet; however I came to understand that social and cultural factors create a complex set of problems that can impede its acceptance. Andy Blundell, President of C3T Action Research Corp, assembled a panel of people who had a much deeper understanding of these problems, and so I was happy to learn from them.

To avoid becoming mired in mere technological issues, this group operated on the assumption that good-quality internet access was already in place (more on this later).  Given no technological barriers, what can be done to lower any remaining barriers?  

One idea that was discussed was the use of community portals, such as Think Local Market or the Three Hills kiboodle portal. I've had water-cooler discussions at Cybera about the relative merits of developing community portals, as compared to simply starting a community page on an existing social media site, like Facebook. I personally thought portals had been extinct since the late 1990s, and the idea of creating one in this day and age seemed like a step back in time. But there are some good reasons for doing so, as I came to understand.  

Firstly, a community portal has a lower threshold of entry, as it is available to everyone on the internet, whereas a Facebook page requires a Facebook account. Secondly, a portal may be better at fostering a sense of community —€” a goal that is becoming increasingly important as the rural population shrinks. Thirdly, it may be better for the local economy, as all the advertising revenue and goods sold through the portal will likely go towards supporting local businesses. Of course, these benefits are balanced by the potential of a much larger market and community that could be reached through social media. Ultimately, I believe portals will serve the rural communities in the same way that they served urban users in the 1990's: as a gentle, comfortable, temporary gateway to the internet.

The use of internet to lower education barriers was also discussed, not only in the sense of continuing general education, but also educating users on how to use the internet: a sort of Internet 101. It was astonishing to me that something like this would even be necessary. People don't need to be taught how to use the Internet, they just… figure it out, right? After all, that's what I did… Or so I thought. In hindsight, much of the way I use the internet today is based on habits acquired over the years, and many of those habits came from imitating others. I was taught by friends and colleagues how to use a search engine effectively, how to spot an obvious scam, and proper email etiquette. It's important to remember that the adoption of any new technology is primarily a social process. In rural communities, where social connections may be sparser than in urban settings, this process would probably benefit from an online Internet 101 course, such as greenhectares.

Encouraging others to grow their internet use may also be impaired by the perception that the Web is primarily about entertainment. After all, as some may argue, spending money and effort on a system for viewing cat videos seems like a frivolous luxury. That, combined with the terrifying bogeyman of email viruses, makes the internet seem like something to avoid.

Much of the rural population may not yet see the internet as a tool: an implement that can be used in business or on the farm. This is where 'success stories' are beneficial: illustrative examples of how the internet has helped a neighbour to achieve some useful, practical goal. The work done by Chris Perry to use technology on his potato farm stands as a shining example.

Despite the assumption of good internet connectivity, little reminders keep coming up that technical barriers do, in fact, remain. A Rural Broadband Coverage Study prepared for the provincial government found that Alberta has achieved 97% internet connectivity.  This statistic is based on a minimum speed of 1.5 Mb/s, as defined by Industry Canada, without defining other quality of service aspects, such as reliability or cost. Notably, even with this weak measure, a full 25% of aboriginal settlements are under-served. The reality is that in many cases, existing internet connectivity is inadequate for participation in our modern digital economy. No business today could be persuaded to set up shop in an area where fast, affordable, and —€” most importantly — reliable internet is not available.

The panel had set ambitious goals for this meeting to create a concrete action plan for moving forward. While the group fell somewhat short of achieving this goal, there were important outcomes, such as plans for outreach to rural communities and developing a business case for improved Internet access. But the most important result is that they have opened the discussion, and are working together to find the way forward.

Cybera also considers this issue of universal connectivity so important, it has decided to focus its 2012 Summit on it. Stay tuned for further details!