Building a digital economy ecosystem in a rural place is a holistic endeavor. Just having one piece won’t lead to success. 

One essential component is the foundational elements that provide a base for future growth — safe downtowns, local amenities, and strong K-12 education. Direct Drivers are another — things such as Access to Capital and Digital Workforce Development that truly enable a place to compete in the digital economy. 

This piece, however, looks at a third: Necessary infrastructure — what is needed specifically for a digital economy. With the right infrastructure in place, communities can create the kind of programming and resources needed for a self-sufficient ecosystem that generates long-term wealth and digital employment. 

We’ve identified three pieces of necessary infrastructure that rural communities need for digital economy ecosystems: Broadband, coworking and entrepreneurship spaces, and local leadership capacity. We’ve defined each component and its role in a digital ecosystem. We’ve also highlighted how our Rural Innovation Network communities model them, and offer best practices for how other rural communities can enhance their own infrastructure. 

How is broadband an element of necessary infrastructure?

At the Center on Rural Innovation, we define broadband’s role as necessary infrastructure like this: 

Like the railroads and highways of previous generations, internet infrastructure allows rural communities to participate in the larger economy. Digital and remote jobs require fast, affordable, and reliable internet that can only be provided by broadband (and, ideally, by fiber). Communities need to have this high-speed internet infrastructure — a minimum of 100/100 megabits per second (Mbps)— in place to build a digital economy ecosystem.

Why broadband matters for digital ecosystem building

Broadband makes the digital economy possible. Digital jobs and tech startups require fast, affordable, and reliable internet that can only be provided by broadband.  

This is especially important in rural places, where much work in tech will deal with customers and companies not in the same place. Rural entrepreneurs need to collaborate through video conferencing and cloud sharing. They need to be able to access the internet at home — not just at work — to coordinate across time zones and work schedules, whenever inspiration strikes. And rural ecosystems need the tools and connectivity to offer the digital job training programs that today are frequently taught online, allowing the flexibility to log on and learn anytime, from anywhere.

Despite persistent myths about the difficulty of obtaining rural connectivity, we know that rural fiber is entirely possible: More than 11 million rural Americans live in census blocks with access to fiber. 

Too many rural communities, however, lack broadband infrastructure. This is called the digital divide: According to FCC data, 22.3% of rural Americans do not have access to even 25/3 Mpbs broadband — and other estimates suggest the percentage is even greater.

In part because of this divide, rural places as a whole have struggled to keep pace with the tech-sector growth occurring in larger metro areas. Without the necessary connectivity, technology and innovation lack the platform to grow and scale. But with high-quality broadband, this doesn’t have to be the case — rural communities can use it to attract and support remote workers, scale tech startups, and connect lag-free to urban hubs, sharing ideas and products that drive digital growth. 

Broadband also helps rural communities attract tech talent and prove the possibility of their digital economies when they can say that their broadband is faster than what’s found in New York and San Francisco.

These benefits are clearest when rural communities have fiber-to-the-home broadband. Fiber is the most future-proof of all broadband options, and it brings the fastest speeds — up to 10 gigabits or more for both upload and download. Having the network go to the home, not just to businesses, allows continuous access to the work and to collaborators, an attraction for innovators and tech workers who like to work on their own schedule.

And despite persistent myths about the difficulty of obtaining rural connectivity, we know that rural fiber is entirely possible: More than 11 million rural Americans live in census blocks with access to fiber. 

Success stories in the Rural Innovation Network

When we choose rural communities to work with, we look for those with world-class broadband infrastructure. The members of our Rural Innovation Network today have widespread coverage — and 11 of them either have or are constructing world-class fiber networks with affordable subscription prices. Here are some prime examples:

  • Springfield, Vermont: Vermont Telephone Company won an RUS grant after the Great Recession to build out a fiber network. Today, every building in Springfield has 10GB fiber capability, powering the success of burgeoning tech organizations like the Black River Innovation Campus. 
  • Wilson, North Carolina: The city of Wilson is a leader in municipal broadband, having created one of the first rural municipal networks — Greenlight Community Broadband — in 2007, fighting tooth and nail against incumbent providers to give the community quality gigabit service at affordable prices.  
  • Emporia, Kansas: In Emporia, a group of local investors built an all-fiber network through ValuNet. Their engineers developed new cable designs to allow efficient “drops” that bring fiber from the pole to the home — a shining example of rural innovation.

How rural communities can improve their broadband

Building a new broadband network in a rural community takes time and work. It’s also eminently possible. Our sister organization, Rural Innovation Strategies, Inc., works with states, towns, and other organizations around the country to create feasibility studies and financial plans for new fiber networks. 

In that work, we’ve identified a path for what it takes for a rural community to get high-speed broadband. This post lays out the steps in detail, but here is the general six-step process: 

  1. Align on what kind of network the community wants and what its purpose is. 
  2. Create a high-level engineering plan to estimate costs of construction. 
  3. Find and create the right partnerships to create and govern the network. 
  4. Create a business plan that accounts for network and operator costs. 
  5. Create a funding and grant strategy to implement the business and engineering plans, often through tapping into subsidy programs. 
  6. Build the network.

In the age of the internet, there should be no limit to where digital economy jobs and startups can take place. The COVID-19 pandemic helped open people’s eyes to the possibility of working where they want to live rather than living where they need to work, including returning to rural America. But we can only realize that dream once broadband is available in every community.

Stay connected

At the Center on Rural Innovation, we are working with rural communities across the country to improve broadband availability. To learn more about our work in this space, be sure to check out our blog and sign up for our newsletter

To learn more about our full ecosystem model and see how necessary infrastructure like broadband fits into the puzzle, head here

If you are interested in working with us to grow your digital economy ecosystem, please contact us