Dr. Christopher W. Smithmyer lived and taught in urban Florida communities and in Brisbane, Australia, before moving to rural Central Pennsylvania. What he quickly discovered is that rural areas suffer from what he calls a telecommunications bias.
Even though millions live and work in rural communities, telecommunications companies focus their efforts on cities, with their compact populations and in-place infrastructures that are easier to connect and upgrade. This has created a technology void for a large swath of the country.
Rural America's tech void is primarily in four areas:
- Unreliable and slow internet service
- Unreliable cell phone service
- Cost of technology services
- Lack of skilled tech workforce
The broadband issue
The topic of improving rural broadband is dominating political campaigns, because leaders finally recognize that they cannot attract new businesses or slow declining populations if citizens don't have a fast internet connection. Some 19 million Americans have no access to broadband internet.
The infrastructure is often overloaded during slow hours, but it gets worse after school lets out and kids log on to their home connections to play video games or watch movies. You may not share an account with them, but you share an infrastructure.
Yet, not every rural community is allowed access to broadband. According to Government Technology, "The Federal Communication Commission's 'benchmark speed' to consider a community served by broadband requires minimum download speeds of 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. ... [F]or the nation, the average is 42.5 Mbps, according to data compiled by Rick Neese of Broadband Now." These restrictions end up dictating where rural business owners can set up shop or whether they can attempt to do business on a more global scale.
"This means that if you were to run a digital company, or work for one like I do, every day is a struggle just to do your job," said Smithmyer, who now works with Brāv Online Conflict Management.
It also means that it is difficult to expand your tech services, both in-house and to customers, if they rely on internet connection. Internet of things devices, like security systems, won't work efficiently enough to make them worthwhile.
There are plenty of funding options to help communities get connected. For instance, the FCC offers grants to companies willing to help rural communities get connected, called the Connect America Fund. The Department of Agriculture offers Community Connect grants. Also, some communities are taking it upon themselves to cobble together various solutions that mix broadband and fiber optic cable. One community in rural Appalachia is even using unused TV channels as Wi-Fi extenders to send out internet access.
No cell service
Beyond a fast internet connection, many rural businesses are faced with issues getting fast, reliable cell phone connectivity. There are still rural cities and towns in the U.S. without adequate broadband infrastructure and even rural areas that lack cellular signal altogether, explained Greg Najjar, the director of business development at Advanced RF Technologies Inc., a company that provides in-building wireless connectivity solutions.
"This puts rural businesses at a disadvantage compared to metropolitan companies with blanket connectivity and high-speed internet," he said. "Nearly 80 percent of cell phone calls are made while inside buildings, often offices, as landlines are becoming less and less common."
Many rural communities are cell phone dead zones. Sometimes those dead zones are the same all the time, and other times it depends, literally, on the weather. Large wireless carriers tend to have more reliable service, but they are usually more expensive, and even they lose service in some areas. If your job has you traveling through rural communities and you don't have reliable cell and data service, you are often out of contact for extended periods.
Cell phone boosters installed in homes, cars and businesses can help, in some cases. They may require an external and internal antenna, and can boost your signal to the FCC's limit of 3 watts. The improvement to your 3G and 4G signal can be as much as 32 times. There are also satellite internet providers.
Cost of technology services
Technology costs for small rural businesses are the same as those for small urban businesses, but you are getting lesser service. The infrastructure for high-speed connections relies on the phone lines that have been in service since party lines were the norm. Upgrades to fiber optic networks cost tens of thousands of dollars – if you can get it at all. It also limits your options, whereas an urban business owner can shop around for cheaper technologies. You take the cellular service that offers the best coverage at the higher cost. Your broadband offerings are one company, take it or leave it.
Lack of skilled tech workforce
Rural communities don't have access to a wide population base to hire from like you would have in urban areas, making it more difficult to find skilled tech workers. IT professionals can command higher wages than many small rural businesses can offer, so in-house or even local tech support is limited. Tech skills among employees could limit digital adoption as well, depending on the access to training. New technologies, such as the use of blockchain to manage the supply chain of small farms, would be a boost for these businesses' economic success, but they require workers who understand and can implement these digital options.
That doesn't mean you can't employ quality talent. You may just have to settle for remote access and video conferencing to stay in touch with remote workers. But first you'll need to make sure your internet connection is solid. [Interested in remote PC access software? Check out our best picks.]
Solution to the tech problem
Because so much of today's technology relies on connectivity, improving internet and cellular availability has to be a priority for small businesses.
"Businesses' best solution for facing a connectivity tech problem would be to deploy a flexible and futureproof in-building connectivity solution that meets their office space's unique needs," said Najjar.
Indoor repeaters, small cells, or distributed antenna systems can offer seamless wireless coverage for rural areas and the lowest total cost of ownership (TCO) for enterprise connectivity coverage. Specifically, a cellular repeater with a retransmission agreement from a local carrier would be a good option for rural businesses.
In turn, fixing the connectivity problem will open up new business opportunities for rural companies and residents. With faster and more seamless connectivity, rural businesses would be able to encourage employees to use BYOD or IoT to bump up their productivity and not be tied to a landline or an ethernet connection. Businesses would be able to expand their horizons, with better access to cloud computing solutions and a remote workforce.
"The nation would be much more successful if we could allow businesses to operate in healthy rural or semirural areas," said Smithmyer.