Sharon Strover

Broadband, rural contexts and local economic dynamics

This research explores the relationship between broadband availability and quality and entrepreneurship in rural regions in three states. It investigates the unique properties of rural locations as they may bear on connectivity's associations with various types of entrepreneurial endeavors.

Scoping new policy frameworks for local and community broadband networks

Over several years, locally-initiated and operated Internet infrastructure projects have attempted to provide online connectivity and simultaneously achieve various social goals. Many generations of do-it-yourself network efforts that are either wireless, such as community mesh networks, or wired, such as fiber cooperatives, exist, but in the United States scaled developments have been stalled for a variety of reasons. This research examines the history of local connectivity efforts as well as technologies designed to cultivate sharing or commons organizational approaches.

Scoping New Policy Frameworks for Local Broadband Networks

Over many years, locally-initiated and operated broadband infrastructure projects have attempted to resolve the last-mile dilemma. Many generations of do-it-yourself (DIY) network efforts that are either wireless, such as community mesh networks, or wired, such as fiber cooperatives, exist, but in the U.S. scaled developments have been stalled for a variety of reasons that include regulatory prohibitions. This research examines a current ‘third wave’ of community networking, marked by local and DIY efforts as well as technological innovations.

Public libraries and 21st century digital equity goals

Public libraries have historically positioned themselves as pillars of information and inclusion in society. Free, available to all, with materials in multiple languages and formats, libraries are possibly the most inclusive public institution.

Why rural America needs better internet service

[Commentary] With an upcoming Federal Communications Commission vote on whether cellphone data speeds are fast enough for work, entertainment and other online activities, Americans face a choice: Is modest-speed internet appropriate for rural areas, or do rural Americans deserve access to the far faster service options available in urban areas?

Reaching rural America with broadband internet service

[Commentary] All across the US, rural communities’ residents are being left out of modern society and the 21st century economy. I’ve traveled to Kansas, Maine, Texas and other states studying internet access and use – and I hear all the time from people with a crucial need still unmet. Rural Americans want faster, cheaper internet like their city-dwelling compatriots have, letting them work remotely and use online services, to access shopping, news, information and government data.

At the Edges of the National Digital Platform

Libraries straddle the information needs of the 21st century. The wifi, computers and now mobile hotspots that some libraries provide their patrons are gateways to a broad, important, and sometimes essential information resources. The research summarized here examines how rural libraries negotiate telecommunications environments, and how mobile hotspots might extend libraries' digital significance in marginalized and often resource-poor regions.

The Internet has grown tremendously in terms of its centrality to information and entertainment resources of all sorts, but the ability to access the Internet in rural areas typically lags that experienced in urban areas. Not only are networks less available in rural areas, they also often are of lower quality and somewhat more expensive; even mobile phone-based data plans — assuming there are acceptable signals available — may be economically out of reach for people in these areas. With older, lower income and less digitally skilled populations typically living in rural areas, the role of the library and its freely available resources may be especially useful. This research examines libraries' experiences with providing free, mobile hotspot-based access to the Internet in rural areas of Maine and Kansas.

Libraries and Rural Broadband

With just a little over 2,000 people in western Kansas’ Stanton County, you might be surprised there’s a library in the area. But the Stanton County Public Library is heavily used. If you went there after hours and looked on its outdoor patio, you might see people at the Anna Mae Lewis Outdoor Library using the Internet connectivity from the library’s network. As my team visited rural libraries in Kansas and Maine, we routinely saw parking lots and streets filled with patrons using Wi-Fi connections after hours. By some estimates, there are 4,078 rural libraries in the US and they’re important in more ways than you might expect. Going well beyond book lending, rural libraries support all sorts of educational programs, maker spaces, and social service meetings. They also have public access computers and most provide Wi-Fi access both inside and outside their buildings.

Feeling Access Pains

[Commentary] While we don’t usually think of cities as lacking broadband services, what they often lack is affordable broadband. Go to a local library in a city and you often see waiting lists for using their computers, or you see many people with their own devices using library-provided Wi-Fi. The New York Public Library program was prompted, in part, by a New York Mayor’s Office 2015 report noting that 36 percent of the city’s households with incomes below the poverty line lacked home Internet service. We know a lot of people have abandoned high priced cable or telephone company-provided Internet plans and just use their mobile phones to access the Internet, but those plans, too, are expensive and typically have data caps. The library patrons we spoke with were clever with work-arounds, but the bottom line was that not having an Internet connection that allows you to work with files, to work for longer periods of time, to work in a comfortable place where you can concentrate, impairs many routine activities. For kids in schools that assume students have easy Internet access, there is real jeopardy they will not be able to participate. Library-based hotspot programs may be a useful, if temporary, solution to access for people who lack the ability to subscribe to broadband services. Our work is ongoing. In addition to New York/Queens/Brooklyn Public Libraries, we are looking at some rural libraries in Kansas and Maine that are also lending hotspots. Affordability is a common refrain both in rural and urban regions. There are some other dynamics in rural areas that complicate the picture, and we will share some of those observations later on. But the fundamental questions have to do with the status of this essential infrastructure in America. Why do we have the highest prices around the world for gaining access? Why so much less high-capacity service (like fiber) compared to many other industrialized countries? What is the role for wireless services filling in where wired infrastructure is either unaffordable or unavailable? And where do libraries fit in our broadband plans?

[Sharon Strover is a Professor in Communication and former Chair of the Radio-TV-Film Department at the University of Texas where she now directs the Technology and Information Policy Institute.]