Are Americans Ready for Broadband Deployment?

Are Americans Ready for Broadband Deployment?

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The United States Department of Agriculture recently reported on the status of stimulus spending, including spending done to deploy broadband services to rural America.  According to the Department, just over $3.5 billion was invested in the funding of 297 broadband projects, four satellite awards, and 19 technical assistance grants.  The investment funded broadband deployment in 45 states and one U.S. territory.

The Obama Administration wants to address high unemployment and poverty in rural America. Using broadband to access higher education online, search for employment, and connect small and home-based businesses to national and international markets are some of the ways citizens in rural areas will be able counter unemployment and poverty.

The gap between poverty rates of urban and rural areas is one indicator of the challenges the initiative will face, and that gap is widening, according to the Department.  Overall, poverty rates for urban and rural areas increased between 2008 and 2009. The urban poverty rate was 13.9% in 2009, up from 12.9% in 2008. Meanwhile, the rural poverty rate was 16.6% in 2009, up from 15.1% in 2008. The 2.2 percentage point gap between urban and rural poverty rates in 2008 increased to 2.7% in 2009.

Of the total 2,308 rural counties in America, 442 are classified as high-poverty counties. Approximately three-fourths of high-poverty counties are classified by ethnic groups that make up the majority of the poor.  According to the Department, 210 high-poverty counties are black while 74 high-poverty counties are Hispanic.

Most high-poverty black counties are located in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina.  Most high-poverty Hispanic counties are found in New Mexico and Texas.

Like any build out of infrastructure or increase in capital stock, the impact that additional deployment of broadband may have on employment and output will depend partially on how well minorities in rural areas can use the infrastructure. For example, as reported last week in Politic365.com, the overall graduation rate for the public high school class graduating in the 2006-2007 school year was 73.9%.  This compares to a graduation rate of 71.7% for the public high school class graduating in 2000-2001.

The percentage of individuals in the United States aged 16 to 24 who are not enrolled in high school and have not earned a high school diploma or a general equivalency diploma was 9.1% in 2008.  Sixteen percent of drop outs in the United States were African American in 2008, compared to whites who made up approximately 41% of total U.S. drop outs.

In addition, while 19.86% of whites have bachelor degrees, 11.63% of blacks and 8.76% of Hispanics have bachelor degrees. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2009, of the 188,200 employed in rural south Georgia, 1,180 individuals (.6%) are employed in computer or mathematical sciences.

These figures would not be surprising to experts in information technology staffing. According to James Del Monte, president of JDA Professional Services, Inc., a Houston-based, IT staffing firm, less than 3% of college graduates at bachelor degree levels possess IT, management information systems, or computer science majors. Forty percent of new jobs, however, will require computer skills, according to Mr. Del Monte.

So as stimulus spending by the federal government winds down, the question is whether America will be ready to put the spending to productive use?

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