Thursday, March 19, 2009

Media: The Rural-Urban Divide

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The more I talk to friends that have some knowledge of the media, the more convinced I am that I will have to give in about having a physical newspaper to carry around, even once a week. Besides the capital and operating costs of operating a printing press, and the transportation costs of distribution, all of which are dooming the physical newspaper, there's an environmental aspect to it--even using recycled paper, it's not ecologically responsible to use that much energy and paper to create a hard copy of the newspaper.

Fine, I give in. I will miss the physical newspaper, but I can tote my laptop around if a e-Book device doesn't satisfy me, and I will be able to read the electronic version of a newspaper. That's okay for someone living in a place like Toronto, where it seems like free WiFi internet informally covers the whole city (except exactly where one wants it at a given time)--at the very least, a hot spot to go and download the latest news is never that far away. With time, that will probably only get better, as cellular phone networks and wireless broadband Internet become even more integrated.

However, how does that help someone in, say, White River, Ontario? In a community of just several thousand people dozens or more kilometers from the next closest town, how does someone there get the latest newspaper? In theory, the Internet was going to make it irrelevant where someone was located--a person could be reading a web page from across the same room as the content creator or from the South Pole. In a world of streaming media and large file sizes, though, that only works if the South Pole has a broadband Internet connection.

If we don't want to leave rural residents behind, we need to take more seriously the development and deployment of technologies that bring data--whether it's being delivered by the TCP/IP protocols that dominate the Internet right now or any other future data transmission protocols--to rural locations. Rural residents are used to waiting to get news because of their remote locations, but with the Internet, it's either there instantly or it isn't ever there. Perhaps they won't have quite the bandwidth available in a huge metropolitan area (that may be the cost of being rural), but if there's a free (or low-cost utility-style) network available in the cities, it needs to be available wherever people are living, at least if it's a place that justifies electricity delivery. Internet access needs to be a utility, treated like electricity. It's becoming that essential to living in the modern world.

While the replacement of newspapers may have pushed me over the edge to such advocacy, it runs much deeper. If future workplaces will require being able to use technologies currently available on mobile devices, then rural children will be at a severe disadvantage to learn the skills necessary to contribute to that workplace if they can't use such devices. It might seem like it would be nice if children from outside the cities didn't text message all the time, but it might mean that they wouldn't know how to sell products when they grew up.

The technologies developed for rural areas may benefit cities as well--they likely will be able to be deployed in less dense suburbs as well as the countryside. As this is clearly a technical challenge--at least from the standpoint of accomplishing at a reasonable cost--it will inevitably advance the technology, likely providing performance gains for us all.

Canada, as a nation that is substantially rural outside of the Windsor-Quebec corridor, faces a potentially larger urban-rural divide than most countries if it cannot bring broadband to its rural residents. I have constantly complained about the lack of vision in government policies of both Liberal and Conservative governments in recent years. Here's a chance for such vision: Provide government incentives for the development and deployment of rural broadband. It will pay off in terms of a level playing field for all citizens, and it would give Canadian companies a chance to sell that technology to the rest of the world, where it will also be needed.

And, it will let us all read the newspaper at the same time, when the newspaper on newsprint is gone.

No comments: