We have been hearing for a while that 24% of Americans in rural areas still have no access to broadband and 42% have no broadband at home (Pew Research), making print critical for marketers looking to reach those areas. Thirty-five percent of residents in these communities don’t own a smartphone, restricting their access to digital content even further, and 22% don’t use the Internet at all.
When I’ve heard numbers like these, I always assumed “rural” meant small, isolated pockets out in the wide open spaces of the West or tucked into the hollows of Appalachia where the population density and topography made it difficult to support high-speed infrastructure. It never occurred to me that it meant entire cities and regions we would never imagine.
Recently, I watched a segment on CNN that surprised me. Correspondent Miguel Marquez interviewed residents of Cleveland, Tenn., a community of 44,000 outside Chattanooga, where there is no broadband access. Chattanooga has some of the fastest Internet in the country, yet Cleveland—just 34 miles away—has no broadband access at all. Marquez noted that, since 2011, the FCC has spent “billions” building out broadband to rural areas, but it still has a long way to go. This leaves millions of businesses and residents without access to any but the most basic Internet services. Sure, there are mobile hotspots, but not everyone can afford them.
There are many ramifications of this isolation from the digital world, and marketing is one of them. Local marketers have learned who cannot be reached with digital channels, but national marketers may not be as tuned in to where their graphics-heavy emails and social media and digital advertising efforts may not be reaching. In cities like Cleveland, businesses and residents may be completely blind to the digital components of your campaigns.
This issue is being addressed at the micro-level by small companies like Wave Wireless, whose owner built his own broadband network that turned into a budding company to serve others near Parsons, Kan. There are more and more of these companies springing up. As of late last year, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) estimated that there are about 2,000 companies providing such fixed wireless broadband access across all 50 states, serving an average of 1,200 customers each. But that’s not much consolation to brands looking to reach the 24 million Americans and the innumerable businesses not yet served by (or who cannot afford) such services.
(For a synopsis of why broadband has yet to reach many communities, you can check out this CNET report.)
The challenges to bringing broadband to nearly 8% of the U.S. population are great, and they aren’t likely to be solved any time soon. Until then, print and other traditional channels remain critical to reaching these customers, whether business or consumer. So before your clients cut their print budgets in favor of digital marketing, make sure they don’t need those 8% of the U.S. population that they may not be able to reach.