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Getting smart in the countryside

Speed read
  • Visions of a ‘smart’ future biased in favor of cities
  • Lack of rural broadband access promotes digital divide
  • Network technologies that provide solutions may also offer new opportunities

If I ask you to imagine a ‘smart’ future, what do you see?

Perhaps a gleaming technopolis where autonomous cars navigate smart streets, under the efficient glow of adaptive lighting. Municipal services like fire prevention and garbage collection are seamlessly integrated — the smart city of the future probably even has smart sewage.

But what about the countryside? How smart will it be?

Typically, when tech pundits talk about a networked utopia, their vision is resoundingly urban. After all, what use do cornfields have for technology? (A lot, actually).

Nearly twenty percent of Americans (59.5 million people) live outside of urban areas. Those who do live in cities depend on rural communities for food, timber, and other raw materials, as well as recreation. Yet 39 percent of rural Americans lack access to broadband internet, let alone the visionary technologies on today’s tech drawing boards.

Along with its celebrated purple mountain majesties, American terrain includes vast swathes of desert, swamps, prairies, tropical and temperate forests, and rainforest. Combined with sparse population density, lack of IT education, limited private investment, and outdated infrastructure, there’s a very real danger of rural communities being left behind while cities zoom into the future.

<strong>Ellen Zegura</strong> is spearheading an effort to bring broadband service into rural areas. Without this critical infrastructure, rural residents will miss educational, social, and employment opportunities. Courtesy Ellen Zegura.

“Technologists, like everyone, find it convenient to envision a future for the places and people they know best. For most, that means urban or suburban settings,” says Ellen Zegura, professor in the School of Computer Science at Georgia Institute of Technology. “It’s harder to see what technology can do for the challenges of rural communities. Smart traffic lights aren’t the answer, that’s for sure!”

Over the river and through the woods

Intelligent infrastructure designed for cities, such as leak-detecting pipes or bridges that alert authorities prior to structural failure, may be even more useful in isolated communities with limited populations, budgets, and workforce.

But a reliable, high-speed network is required to move sensor data in real-time from where it is gathered, to where it is processed, to where it will ultimately be used.

In a recent white paper describing the infrastructure challenges facing rural communities, Zegura likens the current technological divide to the historical problem of rural electrification.

In the 1930s, 90 percent of urban-dwelling Americans had electricity, compared with only 10 percent of rural Americans. Private power companies believed further expansion was not economically feasible. It wasn’t until the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 that the grid was finally extended to rural areas.

“Industry is not well positioned to address the issues of smaller, rural communities with a limited economic base, thus university-based research has a critical role to play,” says Zegura.

Bridging the divide

In a collaboration with Elizabeth Belding, professor of computer science at The University of California, Santa Barbara, Zegura is taking her interest in disruption-tolerant networking from the theoretical to the practical.

<strong>Tribal Digital Village</strong> is one of the projects working to bring digital services to the 60 million people living beyond urban areas. Courtesy Tribal Digital Village.

The Tribal Digital Village (TDV) in southern California is a program bringing wireless broadband infrastructure to 17 tribal reservation communities in San Diego County. Though close to San Diego, the terrain is mountainous, rocky, and rural, and the communities have no access to terrestrial broadband.

“Native American reservations share many characteristics of rural America, including sparse population, rugged terrain, a challenging economic environment, and limited local jobs,” says Zegura. “We need to do more to bridge the divide between urban and rural America, and technology is one piece of that.” 

Isolated communities that receive reliable, high-speed networking become connected communities, opening the door to new opportunities in education, research and workforce development.

However, challenges of implementing a wireless network in rural areas include network planning, protocols, power management, hardware failures, inaccessibility of network access locations, and remote fault diagnosis.

In the case of TDV, Zegura and her colleagues are attempting to extend the TDV network with white-space technology which operates in the unused TV spectrum.

“Eventually white space networking will increase Internet access, but right now the technology is still on the bleeding edge,” says Zegura. “We’re working hard to both bring value to communities and also advance research understanding.”<strong>Strong signals. </strong> Broadband tower locations for <a href= 'http://www.red-spectrum.com/index.html'>Red Spectrum Communications</a>, an ISP operated by the Coeur d'Alene Tribe in Northwestern Idaho. The purple line shows the reservation boundaries. Courtesy Red Spectrum Communications.

Pursuing network solutions for rural Americans may also bring about other, unforeseen benefits. Any technology that succeeds in landscapes as extreme as the Mojave Desert or the Atchafalaya Swamp, and that can be maintained hundreds of miles from any IT experts, will likely find other uses and generate new industry and market opportunities.

“We need to keep supporting technology research, especially research that grounds itself in tough real-world problems and pays attention to communities that have historically been underrepresented, otherwise we risk an ever increasing gap between technology haves and have nots,” says Zegura.

Closing that gap is the only smart path for our future.

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