Broadband fiber being installed in Grayson County. Courtesy of Facebook.

At the old Appalachian Power office in Galax (now the Virginia Department of Health), there’s an auditorium. In the first years after rural electrification, that’s where the power company would hold demonstrations for housewives on how to use all the modern electric-powered conveniences.

That seems quaint to think about now, but that’s how big a revolution rural electrification was. In those days power companies and extension agents were often involved in teaching rural residents about the benefits and uses of electricity.

In 1938, even the federal government – the big, bad federal government we’ve come to hate so much – got involved. The Rural Electrification Administration organized what came to be known as “the REA Circus,” a tour that criss-crossed 20 states where, under a tent that could seat 1,000 people, “REA employees, county agents, and extension specialists of State agriculture colleges demonstrated the proper use of farm equipment and household appliances.”

Schools in rural areas often added a unit on rural electrification to their agriculture classes and lots of organizations – from the Future Farmers of America to 4-H clubs – pushed programs to get the word out about all the ways farms could be electrified.

So why does this matter today? Here’s why: The arrival of rural broadband has often been likened to rural electrification and, as someone who lives in a rural area without broadband, I’m certainly inclined to agree. With the passage of the federal infrastructure bill, we now stand at the precipice of a day that not long ago was considered fantastical: universal broadband.

I see lots of rural communities, who have long lamented being at an economic disadvantage, who are ready to celebrate. This certainly applies to the current fixation on luring legions of remote workers out of metro areas, reversing all the negative demographic trends that plague many rural communities. I explained in an earlier column why they shouldn’t count too heavily on this. The short version: We unfortunately live in a society that is increasingly polarized geographically, with metro areas voting blue and rural areas voting red. For those rural areas to attract a lot of remote workers from cities, we’re generally talking about the willingness of liberal voters to move to conservative communities – yet we see polling that shows many people are taking the political leanings of a community into account before they move there. That’s not good for rural communities. Some will do OK. Nelson County now has the state’s biggest concentration of remote workers, but Nelson is also right next to Charlottesville. I’ve heard some people point out that conservative Floyd County has its share of, well, for lack of a better word, hippies. The way some people talk about Floyd you’d think it was California East. But Floyd is also right next to the New River Valley and the Roanoke Valley. More isolated rural communities will face more difficult challenges.

OK, maybe that wasn’t the short version. In any case, here’s another cautionary note for rural localities: Don’t place too many bets on universal broadband. Yes, it will be a game-changer in that those communities now can try to attract remote workers or employers who are broadband-dependent (which is increasingly anybody who has to do anything online). But it doesn’t necessarily mean they will attract them. With universal broadband, one big disadvantage disappears but it doesn’t mean others will. Put another way, universal broadband won’t give rural areas an advantage, it will simply put them on the same plane as every other place. They’ll still need to compete in all the ways that localities compete for talent – the rural community with the hiking trails or the arts center or whatever other amenities are in fashion will have an advantage over the ones without.

And that, in a roundabout way, brings me back to the early days of rural electrification with those demonstrations for housewives and farmers. Do we need something similar today with rural broadband?

I’m not talking about instructions on how to view cat videos or the latest hit show on Netflix. (I’m told by those with broadband that’s a thing; I wouldn’t know.) I’m talking about ways to monetize the internet.

Do we need a way to advise businesses in rural areas about how they can take advantage of rural broadband to do things they couldn’t dream of before? Do we need a way to advise potential entrepreneurs in these rural areas of ways they can use the arrival of broadband to create new businesses?

If you’re reading this in some place that’s been wired for years, you may think this is ridiculous. But if you’re in a place that’s been on the wrong side of the digital divide, you may not. The point is, universal broadband is a huge opportunity for rural communities – but only if they figure out how to take advantage of that opportunity. The exact nature of that opportunity we may not fully comprehend. Take some local retail store that until now has depended entirely on its walk-in or drive-in trade. What e-commerce opportunities exist for them? It’s not a matter of simply having a website; it’s what you do with that website.

I’m influenced in part here by a program that we at Cardinal are now part of. Facebook funds a “reader revenue accelerator” program aimed at helping online news site such as ours grow their audience – and the numbers of readers who financially support them. We are one of 30 news sites around the country who were accepted into the current cohort. While Facebook funds the accelerator, it doesn’t run the program. It’s run by Tim Griggs, a former newspaper editor in North Carolina who went on to work with digital products for The New York Times and later was publisher of The Texas Tribune, one of the nation’s best known online-only news sites. The accelerator doesn’t have anything to do with Facebook or even social media in general. So far, we’ve been focused on things like how to grow the number of people who subscribe to our daily newsletter – (you can sign up here! It’s free!) – and how to make it easier for people to donate to support us (you can do that here! It’s not free!). This program is incredibly (and sometimes painfully) detailed in highly technical ways. CRM! CTA! A/B testing! It’s not sufficient to just put up a website – who knew? After all, these days everybody has a website. One of the first things we were told is that, while we may think of ourselves as a news site on the journalism side, on the business side we need to think of ourselves as an e-commerce site. That’s a very different mindset and requires a whole new skill set that this accelerator is teaching us. We’ve already seen some big results with newsletter sign-ups and reader donations; the program’s not called an accelerator for nothing. But that’s us. What about all these other small businesses in rural Virginia that now have an option to do things online. Where is their accelerator?

That’s essentially what all those power company classes and extension programs were in the ’30s and ’40s and even into the ’50s – they were accelerator programs, although nobody used that phrase then. It’s also a somewhat different way to think about the thing we call economic development. Sometimes that phrase gets interpreted as simply “persuading XYZ Corp. to build a plant here.” But it can also mean developing the economy we already have.

In the 1930s, that meant showing housewives how to use an electric stove and farmers how to use heated chicken brooders and milk coolers. So what does that mean when another new technology reaches rural America in the 2020s? Maybe businesses in metro areas could benefit from these lessons, too, but if they’re not getting them, then here’s a rare opportunity for rural communities to out-hustle the competition. 

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.