Do Information Communication Technologies Promote Rural Economic Development?

Article excerpt

Current literature focuses upon the importance of deploying advanced telecommunications in rural communities to achieve various objectives, including economic development. Once advanced information communication technologies (ICT) are present, this literature argues that communities will be better prepared to participate fully in the "information economy" and attract or engender new business development. Although access to the superhighway is nearly ubiquitous today in the United States, few rural areas have deployed ICT programs over a number of years, and we know little about the impact of these programs on economic development. In this paper, we examine five cases in which ICT have been deployed in rural areas, but we find that regardless of the motive for introducing technologically advanced communications systems, there is little evidence that telecommunications lead to economic growth or that businesses in the communities are using ICT extensively. Instead, the paper concludes that the physical deployment of the hardware is not sufficient to achieve success.

Keywords: community economic development, telecommunications, information economy

The modernization and deployment of telecommunications have been hailed as a "savior" for rural areas since the Clinton Administration launched the National Information Infrastructure programs in 1992-93. Advocates of this change have touted the capacity of modern, high-speed, broadband telecommunications to overcome the isolation of rural areas and connect residents and business firms to the global network for economic development. Advocates affirm the enhancement of service delivery and connections to opportunities for life-long learning and other benefits (Clinton & Gore, 1993).

At the national level, programs in the Departments of Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, and Education and Agriculture have provided funding to extend the infrastructure to rural areas in the form of various innovative demonstration projects. While leaving the broad scale infrastructure development to the private sector, federal programs have generally been used to encourage others to adopt the technology as quickly as possible and participate in its benefits. In the rhetoric of the administration, these projects would "build on-ramps to the information highway." The private sector would be responsible for managing the main segments of the "highway."

State governments have established their own approaches to telecommunications, especially in rural areas (Strover & Berquist, 1999; Teske, 1995). Iowa built its own fiber-optic telecommunications system, extended it to rural areas, and invited its use. Missouri provided funding for schools and public libraries to be connected, provided limited funding for the development of "community information networks" (CIN), and encouraged other places to adopt and extend this basic infrastructure to benefit more citizens directly. Nebraska provided both funding and technical assistance, particularly for rural communities, to "get connected" and start using the technology. Other states followed an "anchor tenant" strategy, connecting public institutions like universities, government offices, and healthcare facilities as a venue for introducing the benefits of modern telecommunications to state residents.

Rural communities may be at risk of falling behind in their quality of life and their economic status if they are unable or unwilling to use information technology effectively (Civille et al., 2001). The "digital divide" discussion has pointed mainly to the lack of financial resources for technological deployment in low-income metropolitan and rural communities. The digital divide in rural areas may also refer to a divide between those towns that possess social infrastructure necessary to ensure that information communication technologies (ICT) and applications for this technology are made available to local businesses, organizations, and institutions (Sullivan et al. …