Relationship between brain gain and broadband in rural areas

This summer I’ve had a renewed interest in Ben Winchester’s report on Rural Migration: The Brain Gain of the Newcomers. The theory is that while rural area may be losing youth (brain drain) they are gaining folks who are slightly older…

There is rural population growth in the 30-49 year age cohort. In many rural counties, this in-migration is just about equal to the out-migration of the 18-25 year age cohort. This in-migration is composed of adults in their prime earning years. These findings will remind us that the changes we witness across rural Minnesota are complex and reflect not just challenges, but significant opportunities.

It appears the questions should not necessarily be “how do we get these newcomers?” but “how do we keep them?” The factors related to staying in these new communities include job opportunities and security, feeling of belongs, suitable housing, and opportunities to join local organizations. What can your community do to build on this trend?

The key is asking what communities can do to build on the trend. Ben followed up his research with a report in December where spoke with folks about brain gain- by folks I mean realtors in rural areas, new residents to rural areas (the brains gained), local leaders (brain gainers) and others in rural areas of Minnesota. Some of the reasons people moved to rural areas were easy to guess – the expense of the city, the safety of the rural areas, family – but I was surprised how often the opportunity for self-employment was listed as a reason to go rural.

I was also interested in what role broadband might play in the decision to move to a new area. It turns out that broadband and the Internet played two roles. First, the Internet is a great promotion tool. One of the main questions asked of new residents was “How did you find a particular community?” And the typical answers were: “Family, internet, job postings, EDA and Chamber.” I think that’s a great lesson for anyone looking to lure the brain gain to their areas.

The second role was even more interesting to me, access to broadband opened doors to new possibilities. A community with access might make a move possible. A community without access might get left off the list. Also an employer open to remote workers might be rewarded with an appreciative employee. Here are some of the responses that struck me (special thanks to Ben for allowing me to share!):

(I changed the company names as you’ll see just to save disputes with unnamed sources)

Company X has a footprint in town, but they are not servicing the town, which just drives me absolutely nuts. We have really two dividers here ones Company Y and the other one is Company Z. If I had my choice I would go with Company X and local service.

Company Z is run by the community, I have voice over internet and I have to work separately because evidently, Company Z even though it’s broadband it is not wide enough the tech tried to tell me that, even if the Company Z check guy says it is better than Company Y.

I got Company Y at home,

I’m thinking about switching.

I mean, the only reason I got it is because they offer better service, more bandwidth.

It’s interesting to hear firsthand how the intricacies of providers and service area make a difference to the users – and one solution surprised me…

We had to get a T1 line,

Awesome!

That was not cheap, but we could do telemedicine, which is providing you know, we wanted to get a dermatologist was our first thing that we wanted to get to offer dermatologist services, we can not find anyone who wants to do telemedicine out here because they don’t think that they’ll have enough patients. Can you imagine?

They have to build for it.

But can you imagine how many patients they would have? I mean all the parent’s who take their kids to Willmar and Sioux Falls, if they could just drive down town?

My thing would be, you hit it right there, was with the kids. How many parents do you get out here that go to a children’s hospital for a ten-minute checkup? I mean, it seems kind of bulletproof. But if you go to a local hospital with a video conference and have a local physician?

Again interesting to see how decisions made by providers have an impact on the customer and quite frankly the lengths people will go to get broadband. Also reminds me that it’s difficult to make these decisions based on current use. Current use may be low because it’s not available. Once available and marketed something like telemedicine could take off in a rural area.

I came out here praying that I would be able to keep my job and at part time, I said, we already had the house and I told my boss, “We’re going, you can keep me or I’ll I don’t know, work with Dad or do something. We are gonna go.” So I said we are going and he said ok, well, they didn’t have anyone to replace me and I didn’t want to say anything, before I said anything, I found the stores with hi speed internet what do ya got, this is what I need to get my engineering done. Ok, fine, then we get on the farm and I make an office space, than we got broken off so I had all these things typed out and I gave them to my boss. And he said, “Alright, we’ll try it part time.” At part time, so I came out here three times a week, cut my salary, but it’s better than nothing. After two months he decided I was working out so well, it was great I was about ready to ask and we were renovating our farmhouse. So anyway, and I said my company is up and down and oh my god, you know if I could hang onto this job, they actually got me where they wanted me, what am I going to do? What am I going to use to leave with? I can’t say give me a raise or I’ll walk, but it is a fantastic opportunity. The stress is minimal, the commute time is eleven minutes flat, unless you get stuck behind a combine. Productivity went way up.

This is a story I’d like to share with every potential employer – especially in rural areas.

And finally I wanted to add something for city planners, economic developers and providers…

One thing, and this doesn’t particularly speak about Ortonville, but we probably couldn’t have done this telecommuting arrangement without some pretty serious infrastructure changes but just because we live closer to the telephone utilities. We had telephone utilities from Chokio who was dropping a cable in the country and we said could you run two more miles of cable for us. They did.

Otherwise we wouldn’t be able…

I often hear broadband providers say that if someone asks, they will provide the service. It worked in this instance – but I have to admit (and this harps a bit back to the first role of the Internet) I might not make the call if I were browsing web sites for a potential new home. If an area wasn’t served, it would be off my list.

Interesting I think to read the reports in light of what rural communities can do to make sure that they are poised to attract the brain gain.

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    Ann Treacy's picture
    Ann Treacy

    Ann Treacy lives in the Twin Cities. For work, she writes about broadband in Minnesota. After hours she write about travels and adventures around town.