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06-2022

How the Rise of Remote Work Intersects With Digital Equity

Last October, I joined 50 other remote workers in relocating my home to Morgantown, West Virginia as part of the Ascend West Virginia inaugural class, Ascend West Virginia is an initiative of the newly formed Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative at West Virginia University, developed in partnership with the state of West Virginia. The program offers remote workers cash and in-kind incentives to relocate to the Mountain State, with the hope they will stay long-term and buy a home. The OEDC’s ultimate goal is to create programs “that improve the economy, health, and future of West Virginians,” with initiatives like Ascend West Virginia serving as cornerstones to attract and retain talent and stimulate economic development.

I grew up in a small, rural town in Oregon, looking for a way out. For me, it was a college scholarship to a school 3,000 miles away that drew me away from my hometown. Once I left, I realized that coming back home would not be easy. Many job opportunities there were in the service industry, driven by our heavily tourism-dependent economy. This didn’t exactly offer me an opportunity to build the meaningful, long-term career I crave. So, I became another beleaguered city dweller, following jobs from Boston to Washington, DC and back again.

The Rise of Remote Work

By now, it’s well known that the pandemic accelerated the remote work lifestyle. In full 2020 and much of 2021, remote jobs had seen a distinct upward trajectory in Google Trends. Although the benefits of remote work have been widely touted, just as important is the difference in how workers experienced the shift to remote work. This experience often hinged on where they lived and what type of job they held before 2020.

For me, transitioning to remote work was seamless. My employer, Mathematica, shifted to fully remote work in March 2020. For my colleagues and me, this was essentially a nonevent. My first day of fully remote work in March 2020 was notably different from the last day I spent working from Mathematica’s Cambridge office. What was different, however, was the world of possibilities and the flexibility created by the shift to remote work.

But my experience isnt everyone’s. This was made particularly clear to me as I worked on a project in partnership with the National Association of Counties, where I spoke with leaders across the United States county to understand how shifts in workforce dynamics are changing communities. These changes look notably different for a worker in San Francisco when compared with a worker in rural Appalachia.

Some workers have felt liberated by the experience. Others have struggled.

One thing we heard again and again—as highlighted in the two reports NACo published—“Assessment of County Needs in Economic Recovery from COVID-19,” and “Planning for the Future of Work Amid a Global Pandemic”—was that a long- The term, equitable recovery will look different for different communities, but the need for fast, reliable and affordable broadband was universal and unequivocal. In the words of one county leader, broadband today has become as essential as “electricity [became] in the early 20th century.”

Remote Work Relies on Broadband Access

Broadband access is both about meeting residents’ needs today and counties’ ability to compete in the workplace of tomorrow. This is why the $65 billion for broadband infrastructure included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is so critical. With so many companies making a permanent shift to remote work, smaller cities and rural areas are able—perhaps for the first time in many years—to compete with traditional hot job markets in urban centers like New York and San Francisco. In fact, some communities are actively targeting remote workers as an economic development strategy, luring knowledge workers by offering a lower cost of living and a strong sense of community.

Remote worker incentive programs have sprung up everywhere, from rural communities in Northwest Arkansas and Alabama to larger cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma and Savannah, Georgia. As one county leader said to me during this project, if you can work from anywhere, why wouldn’t you want to wake up in the mountains every day? These remote work incentive and recruitment programs—and indeed, the rise in remote work more broadly—open up novel possibilities for economic development in communities large and small across the country.

But these possibilities only extend as far as a reliable Wi-Fi signal. As noted by the American Civil Liberties Union, millions of Americans still lack access to broadband. Encouraging remote workers to relocate to communities like Tulsa and Savannah may be a boon to those economies, but it doesn’t address broader questions of systemic broadband equity.

Large cities like my former home of Boston—which recently announced a $12 million investment in digital equity and inclusion by providing free access to wireless broadband service and supports for public housing residents, library users and families with school-age children throughout the city—have recognized the value of investing in broadband expansion across parts of the city where longer term broadband accessibility programs are most needed. When similar investments are scaled in smaller, more rural cities and counties across the country, we’re likely to experience considerable promise for future economic growth, digital equity and remote work.

It’s too early to say whether West Virginia will become my forever home or what economic development impact this program will have on the region in the long term. But I can say one thing with certainty: Broadband is essential to my life in Morgantown, and I wouldn’t be able to work from the mountains of West Virginia without it.

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