Sunday, November 08, 2015

Miss ... the Internet ... and you

At the risk of it sounding like a Ben Carson joke, I remember well growing up in Clarke County, Mississippi and getting interested in news when I was a teenager. The main news magazines at that time were Time, Newsweek and US News and World Report. There was no place in the county that sold Time or Newsweek. US News, I don't know, because my father had a subscription so I don't recall looking for it anywhere. I believe Time or Newsweek were available in the high school library.

I was reminded of that seeing this Wired article by Ralph Eubanks, The Land That the Internet Era Forgot 11/07/2015. The title is a takeoff from an Edgar Rice Burroughs story:

Eubanks tells at some length about the relative shortage of Internet access, which of course affects African-Americans more than whites. Mississippi is currently about 38% black, which as Eubanks notes,is "the largest percentage of African-Americans (...) of any [state] in the union" . He travels around the state with Roberto Gallardo of the Extension Service,a longtime program run by Mississippi State University. Gallardo does presentations in rural areas across the state explaining the benefits of Internet access. Eubanks:

Even when he’s talking to me, Gallardo delivers this message with the straitlaced intensity of a traveling preacher. “Broadband is as essential to this country’s infrastructure as electricity was 110 years ago or the Interstate Highway System 50 years ago,” he says from his side of our booth at the deli, his voice rising high enough above the lunch-hour din that a man at a nearby table starts paying attention. “If you don’t have access to the technology, or if you don’t know how to use it, it’s similar to not being able to read and write.”

These issues of digital literacy, access, and isolation are especially pronounced here in the Magnolia State. Mississippi today ranks around the bottom of nearly every national tally of health and economic well-being. It has the lowest median household income and the highest rate of child mortality. It also ranks last in high-speed household Internet access. In human terms, that means more than a million Mississippians—over a third of the state’s population—lack access to fast wired broadband at home.
Eubanks reports on stopping off in Quitman, the county seat of Clarke County. He describes it as something of a success story on broadband access:

Two days after our initial meeting, Gallardo and I pull up to the city hall in Quitman, population 2,300, a former logging and textile town about 200 miles southeast of the Delta. On its face, the town shows some of the telltale marks of rural decline: An abandoned plant sits right in the middle of everything, and the town has lost an estimated 15 percent of its population—which now stands at around 60 percent white, 40 percent black—over the past decade. The official poverty rate stands at about 24 percent. But still, cars are humming down the streets, and people dot the sidewalks. It’s not bustling, exactly, but it’s alive. And kicking.

In 2013 a regional telecommunications company called C Spire announced that it would bring fiber-optic broadband infrastructure to any Mississippi town or neighborhood that could rally between 35 and 45 percent of its residents to commit to signing up for service. The pitch—which mimics Google Fiber’s business model for getting broadband infrastructure to large numbers of homes quickly—set off a flurry of neighborhood organizing campaigns across the state. (In Eudora Welty’s old neighborhood in Jackson not long ago, I saw yard signs dotting the streets that read “I signed up for C Spire broadband. Will you?”) When C Spire announced the first nine towns that had reached critical mass in November 2013, right there on the list was tiny, out-of-the-way Quitman.

The town’s size turned out to be an asset. The pastor of the local First Baptist Church, Gene Neal, made it a personal cause to get his congregation signed up. Toby Bartee, the local judge and a pillar of the town’s black Baptist church, rallied his congregation as well. Between them, that accounted for a significant chunk of Quitman. For anyone who could not afford C Spire’s $10 sign-up charge, the town enlisted local banks and businesses to pay the fee. When it was announced that Quitman would be getting fiber broadband, Gallardo began showing up frequently too, teaching Internet basics at the library, consulting with town leaders, and generally making sure Quitman could make the most of its state-of-the-art Internet connection.

When Gallardo and I arrive at city hall, Eddie Fulton, the avuncular, white-haired mayor of Quitman, meets us outside and promptly cracks a well-worn joke about Gallardo’s green card. Gallardo plays along gamely, then Fulton grabs me by the arm to tell me about signs of hope he already sees in his newly wired town: There’s the local women’s clothing boutique called Simply Irresistible that has an Instagram following more than triple the size of Quitman’s population; 90 percent of its sales come from out of town. There’s a 3-D printer at the public library, hooked up to the town’s broadband connection.
Last time I was there, as I recall, the Quitman Safeway had a magazine rack. I forget whether I checked to see if they had a print edition of Time or Newsweek. But now people there have an option to access them online at home.

The title of this post, BTW, comes from this:

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