As an asphalt paving equipment manufacturer, Weiler is exactly the type of business poised to benefit if the federal government increases spending on roads and bridges. But when Patrick Weiler talks about infrastructure, the problem he first mentions has virtually nothing to do with the core business of his company.
It is a broadband Internet service.
Weiler is based in Marion County, Iowa, a rural area southeast of Des Moines. Internet speeds are good at the company’s 400,000-square-foot plant, as Weiler paid to run a fiber-optic cable from the nearby freeway. But that doesn’t help the surrounding community, where broadband access can be spotty at best. It’s a recruitment problem – already one of the biggest challenges for Weiler and many other rural employers.
“How do you get young people to want to go back to these rural areas when they feel like they are going back to a period of 20 years ago?” asked Mr. Weiler, founder and CEO of the company.
Rural areas have complained for years that slow, unreliable or simply unavailable internet access is limiting their economic growth. But the pandemic has given new urgency to those concerns, as President Biden’s infrastructure plan – which includes $ 100 billion to improve broadband access – has raised hopes that the problem could. finally be solved.
“It creates jobs by connecting all Americans with high-speed internet, including 35 percent of rural America who still don’t have it,” Biden said of his plan in a speech to Congress. last month. “It will help our children and our businesses succeed in the 21st century economy.”
Mr Biden has received both criticism and praise for pushing to expand the scope of infrastructure to include investments in child care, health care and other priorities beyond concrete projects and steel that the word normally evokes. But ensuring internet access is very popular. In a recent survey conducted for The New York Times by the online research platform SurveyMonkey, 78% of adults said they supported investing in broadband, including 62% of Republicans.
Businesses, too, have always supported investments in broadband. Major industry groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the National Association of Manufacturers have all issued policy recommendations in the past year, calling for federal spending to help bridge the “digital divide.” “.
It is difficult to quantify this divide and its economic cost, in part because there is no agreed definition of broadband. In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission updated its standards to a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second. Agriculture ministry sets lower standard at 10 mps A bipartisan group of rural state senators has asked the two agencies this year to raise their standards to 100 mps And speed-based definitions do not take into account ‘other issues, such as reliability and latency, a measure of the time it takes for a signal to travel between a computer and a remote server.
Regardless of the definition, analyzes consistently show that millions of Americans do not have access to reliable high-speed Internet access and that rural areas are particularly underserved. A recent study by Broadband Now, an independent research group with widely cited data, found that 42 million Americans live in places where they cannot afford broadband internet service, most of them in rural areas.
As defined by the FCC, most of Marion County has high-speed Internet access. But residents report that the service is slow and unreliable. And with a single provider serving much of the county, customers have little leverage to demand better service.
Marion County, with a population of 33,000, faces economic challenges common to rural areas: an aging workforce, anemic population growth and a limited number of employers concentrated in a few industries. But it also has strengths, notably its proximity to Des Moines and a group of employers eager to train workers.
Local leaders have plans to attract new businesses and a younger generation of workers – but those plans won’t work without better internet service, said Mark Raymie, chairman of the county watchdog.
“Our ability to diversify our economic base depends on modern infrastructure, and that includes broadband,” he said. “We can say, ‘Come and work here’. But if we don’t have modern equipment, modern infrastructure, this sales pitch falls flat. “
Mr. Weiler’s daughter, Megan Green, grew up in Marion County, then left to go to college and start her career. When she moved home in 2017 to work for her father’s company, it was like stepping back to an earlier technological era.
“Our cell service is more spotty, our wireless is more finicky, and we certainly only have one choice,” said Ms. Green, 35. “It’s a bit of a generation issue. We rely on Internet access. “
Ms. Green moved home for family reasons. But finding others willing to do the same has been difficult. Broadband is not the only factor – housing and child care shortages are also very significant – but it is a major factor. Recruitment is the “No. 1 challenge, ”Ms. Green said, despite a salary that starts at around $ 20 an hour, before overtime.
The experience of the past year has exacerbated the problem. When the pandemic struck last year, Weiler sent home all workers who did not have to be in the factory. But they quickly encountered a problem.
“I was shocked how many of our employees couldn’t work from home because they didn’t have reliable internet access,” Ms. Green said. “We are talking about ‘seven minutes to download an email’ type of Internet access.”
Other local businesses have had a similar experience. In June, the Greater Des Moines Partnership, a regional business group, commissioned a study on how to improve the region’s digital infrastructure. As state and federal governments consider significant investments, the group is hoping its study will prioritize funding for it, said Brian Crowe, the group’s head of economic development.
For Marion County and other rural areas, the widespread experience of working from home during the pandemic could present an economic opportunity if the infrastructure is there to allow it. Many companies have said they will allow employees to continue working remotely some or all of the time, which could allow workers to give up city life and move to the countryside – or take jobs in the countryside. companies like Weiler while their spouses are working from home.
“All of a sudden it won’t be the case that in order to work for leading companies you have to move to the cities where those companies are located,” said Adam Ozimek, chief economist for Upwork, a platform. form for freelancers. “It’s going to spread opportunities.”
But broadband experts say it is impossible for rural areas to have access to high-speed, reliable internet service without government help. If a place does not have internet access in 2021, there is a reason: generally too few potential customers, too dispersed to serve effectively.
“The private sector is just not set up to solve this problem,” said Adie Tomer, a member of the Brookings Institution who has researched the issue. He compared the challenge to rural electrification almost a century ago, when the federal government had to step in to ensure that even remote areas had access to electricity.
“This is exactly what we saw unfold in terms of economic history in the 1910s, 20s, 30s,” he said. “It’s really about leaving cities behind.”