Not a Luxury: Pandemic Highlights Digital Divide in Rural Areas in Missouri and Kansas

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St. Clair County, about 100 miles southeast of Kansas City, has a population of about 9,000 people. Roughly 18% of them live below the poverty line.  Theresa Heckenlively is the head of economic development for the county, and says lack of internet access is hurting the county now, and limiting its future.  “We don’t have enough service to be reliable for home and definitely not enough for economic growth,” Heckenlively said. “We see that a lot of people are coming from out of state and want to move into our rural communities. And I see that long term they may not get what they need and internet access is a part of that.”  Heckenlively recalled someone who had come looking for office space in town, but due to the lack of reliable access to broadband internet, could not find anywhere to operate their business. She also worries that young people who grew up with technology and are more plugged into the digital world may flee rural areas like St. Clair County to more urban areas with better access. “We would be able to maintain our population a little bit with more internet access,” Heckenlively said.

“Prior to the pandemic, we’ve been working for years to really advocate for closing the broadband digital divide, and trying to convey to legislators that if you live in rural Kansas, you’re not really getting the same level of service that’s available in more urban areas,” said Jade Piros de Carvalho, network service provider Ideatek’s director of industry and community relations. “It’s not just a luxury issue, right? It’s a quality of life issue. It’s an economic development issue. It’s an education issue.”

Not a Luxury: Pandemic Highlights Digital Divide in Rural Areas