Community broadband, the rural economy, and commuting

The sharp increases in gas and diesel fuel are raising the cost of commuting. Even if fuel prices recede (as they did after the '73 oil crunch), it seems likely that we will never see $2 gas again, and it may be that $3 gas becomes the new normal.

While the cost of fuel affects everyone to some extent, rural communities may be at most risk. Many workers in rural towns drive long distances to work, and a doubling of the cost of such drives may make it too expensive to make those commutes for a $12 or $14 per hour job.

Like the Chinese ideogram that can be read both as "danger" and "opportunity," the fuel crisis may, over the long term, be an opportunity for some rural towns, and could be the end of others. If it is too expensive to drive long distances to work, some workers and families may move closer to the work, further reducing the viability of some rural communities that are already struggling with long, slow declines in population.

But some businesses may decide to move closer to workers, and rural communities with the right economic development strategy to attract such businesses may have an edge--if they have good quality of life, attractive and vibrant downtowns, and .... broadband.

Community broadband projects can have a double impact. Properly designed community networks that extend affordable broadband into residential neighborhoods and along rural roads can bring new kinds of work from home opportunities to a rural workforce--getting them off the road completely and eliminating long commutes entirely. Fiber in business and industrial parks can attract businesses, which won't even consider some communities unless fiber services are available.

Rural communities will have to respond to the fuel increases with well thought out, long term strategies to help reduce commuting costs for their residents. Those that don't will see more workers and families moving away--reluctantly, but leaving nonetheless.