Sharon Strover received a grant from IC2 to characterize and quantify the relationship between adequate broadband services for rural entrepreneurship efforts, and to assess the politics that can improve the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.  

Broadband and Rural Entrepreneurial Ecosystems

The Internet is increasingly embedded in all aspects of life in the U.S. This means that Internet access and skills are essential in order for individuals and businesses to explore and use education, health and economic opportunities. Businesses rely on the Internet in order to do everything from accessing supplies to engaging with customers or users to securing capital.

However, rural access to broadband service is uneven (Whitacre et al.).  Where there is broadband access, the quality of the service may not meet FCC broadband thresholds (25 Mbps download, 3 Mbps upload), or it may be highly variable or expensive.  Beyond service factors, rural populations are likelier to be older, somewhat poorer, and less digitally skilled and therefore less inclined to adopt or use broadband. Similarly, businesses in rural areas may have less access to staff with the requisite Internet skills (LaRose, Strover, Gregg, Straubhaar).  Since small firms have a dominant position in rural areas compared to metro rates, using and being able to afford quality broadband may be problematic.  Both supply and consumer demand factors influence opportunities to use the Internet for job seeking, job-creating, networking and related entrepreneurial activities.

Our previous research in rural regions of Kansas, Maine and Texas illustrates a surprising volume of evidence that many people depend on Internet access – frequently provided by local public libraries as the least expensive, highest quality access (Strover et al.).  With local markets often limited or depressed, people with goods or services face difficulties in reaching appropriate users if they lack broadband.  Sometimes the markets may be local, as with services for manual labor for example, but they may also be international, as with locally crafted goods that one might want to sell on Etsy. Indeed, we found a number of female entrepreneurs in Kansas who were producing local products and selling them on the international marketplace via Internet platforms.  Similarly, our examination of rural libraries’ Internet ecosystems demonstrated that people require Internet services for everything from managing their small businesses to locating customers to sourcing appropriate inventory for their operations. Clearly, Internet connectivity can be useful for some small business and entrepreneurial activity, and local rural economic development efforts often claim it is essential (Mack and Faggian; Mack, Anselin and Grubesic).

However, how do broadband service quality and price affect entrepreneurship?  How do entrepreneurial efforts characteristic of rural regions specifically use broadband?  How do their ecosystems interact with this infrastructure? To date, there are some contradictory findings on these matters.  Nonetheless, a wave of small scale local and state policy efforts to drive improved broadband into rural areas is currently underway in many states, often premised on broadband’s essential status for education, health and economic development. These efforts aim to substitute for inadequate incumbent-provided services or for absent broadband. The core research questions here are (1) What is the role of local broadband in entrepreneurial activities in rural regions? (2) How can broadband improvements support or improve entrepreneurship in rural areas? (3) What policies – public or private – might enhance broadband’s availability and our understanding of how entrepreneurs use it? Quality and cost of service will be core components of the inquiry.