Located two-and-a-half hours southwest of Washington, D.C., on Virginia’s Valley Pike, the city of Staunton, Virginia, was founded in 1747. In 1856, the future twentieth-eighth president, Woodrow Wilson, was born there. During the Civil War, the town was a vibrant transportation hub in the Shenandoah Valley and back then, residents overwhelmingly fought for the Confederacy. In 1902, Staunton became an independent city from its surrounding county and home to many people seeking refuge. Freed blacks were one such group who migrated to the area in search of higher wages, due to the city’s positioning as a transit hub.

Today, Staunton sits at the crossroads of two interstates, 81 and 64, which carry traffic north and south through the center of the valley and east across the Piedmont to Virginia’s state capitol, Richmond. With a 2017 population of nearly 25,000, Staunton is the first stop on my 10-city tour to investigate the effects of being digitally invisible in a highly connected, global society. Rural areas like Staunton are in critical need of high-speed broadband networks for economic and talent development, especially as access to technology has become the lever to avert the expected outcomes of poverty and social isolation, at least for vulnerable populations.

“Here in Staunton, you realize that you’re going to be here a long time. You need some way to keep up with the world and that’s through the internet,” Don Mulgrave said to me. He was born in the city and recently moved back after a short stay in California. While Don has a smartphone, an estimated 55 million people lack access to a broadband connection in the United States. Fourteen million of them live in rural areas. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversees the deployment of broadband nationwide, reports that it would cost $40 billion to bring broadband access to 98 percent of the country. Expanding broadband access to rural areas would be even more expensive, given the vast topography and far proximity from telecommunications facilities.

Read the full article about closing the digital and economic divides by Nicol Turner-Lee at Brookings.