Rural Development

Steps Towards Realizing the Potential of Telecommunications Technologies Gao ID: RCED-96-155 June 14, 1996

Many rural areas today are struggling to overcome serious economic and social problems, such as a lack of access to higher education, sophisticated medical treatment, and business opportunities, that have arisen because of remoteness from urban centers. Although improved roads were once seen as the key to a brighter future for rural areas, experts now believe that telecommunications technologies may prove much more crucial to fostering development. Advanced telecommunications technologies--the Internet, videoconferencing, and high-speed data transmission--offer rural areas the opportunity to overcome their geographic isolation, take advantage of expertise in other communities, improve medical services, create new jobs, and improve access to education. This report (1) identifies federal programs that rural areas can use to fund telecommunications projects; (2) identifies lessons learned by rural areas that have used these programs to establish such projects; and (3) provides the views of experts, public and private officials, and program users on whether changes to these programs are needed.

GAO found that: (1) as of December 1995, there were at least 28 programs that provided discretionary development funds for rural telecommunications projects; (2) 13 designated programs provided about $715.8 million for 540 telecommunications projects; (3) program users and rural development experts believe that rural communities need a basic understanding of telecommunications technologies and their potential benefits, strategic plans to determine the technical and financial feasibility of telecommunications development, and partnerships among key players involved in constructing, financing, and using telecommunications networks; (4) rural development experts and public officials believe that telecommunications programs could be improved by educating rural communities on the potential benefits of telecommunications technologies, building in requirements for considering telecommunications technologies in long-range planning, and making multiple federal programs easier to use; (5) most federal agencies lack the resources required for educational outreach programs; and (6) 1996 legislation emphasizes the need for rural communities to include telecommunications projects in their long-term planning and coordination of multiple federal programs.

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