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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has the fastest internet in the West and is on the technological rise, even as it takes steps to bridge the digital divide in some of its outlying communities.
There’s no denying the influence that technological development has had on the perception of Utah. The rapid rise of the tech world up and down the Wasatch Front has earned the I-15 corridor a brand-new nickname: the Silicon Slopes.
Numerous tech companies including Google, eBay and Adobe are clamoring to claim a place in the fastest-growing state in the nation, and the impact has already yielded significant benefits to the residents of Utah.
Utah is expected to double its population by 2050, adding 2.5 million new residents over the next 33 years. The Beehive State is adding jobs at nearly twice the rate of the rest of the nation, and Utah was also recently ranked No. 1 in innovation and entrepreneurship by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
This kind of explosive growth might leave many residents of Utah wary, but the economic boon of growing so quickly cannot be overlooked. Traditionally, this growth has been limited to major population centers in Salt Lake and Utah Valley, but rural locations like Cedar City and San Juan County are experiencing a growth of opportunities as well.
Residents of these communities are starting to feel more connected to the world as the technological gap continues to close, but many challenges still remain.
The digital divide is real.
In a recent internet survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, it was reported that as of 2015, only 78 percent of rural residents in the United States had access to the internet, as opposed to 85 percent in more developed areas. And that doesn't even take into account the available speeds.
A little over 50 percent of rural residents in the United States have access to download speeds of 25 megabits per second or more, compared to over 94 percent access in urban areas. Many residents also only have one provider to choose from, leaving them exposed to price hikes and unreliable service.
Utah is ranked 11th for internet connection, but some rural areas like San Juan and Daggett County lag significantly behind, and over 53,000 Utahns don't have access to any internet providers at all, according to Broadband Now.
While Provo has one of the highest rates of home internet connection in the country, and 99.3 percent of Beaver County has access to broadband (high-speed internet) connection, Morgan, San Juan and Daggett counties all have less than 16 percent access.
[Utah Broadband Map](http://broadbandnow.com/Utah)
These statistics point to more serious implications as well.
The Education Commission of States released a report saying that the biggest impediment to students engaging in post-secondary education was, in fact, the infrastructure and affordability of broadband connection.
“Faster internet equals more opportunity and success for students,” said Carol Smith, a tech specialist from USDish.com. “Satellite internet is also an innovative solution that addresses the lack of options for students in less-developed areas.”
The good news is that Utah is taking steps to remedy the situation.
As noted in a recent Utah Foundation Report, “Having a technological infrastructure in place is as essential for an expanding economy as the highway, rail, airport and shipping networks that allow the rapid transport of people and products around the globe.”
The state has placed a large emphasis on technology. The Utah Department of Transportation often works with internet companies, urging them to install fiber during construction, often installing conduits regardless of whether fiber is currently available or not.
The Utah Education and Telehealth Network is an organization that is committed to bringing high-speed internet to some of the most remote locations in Utah. They work with local school districts to secure federal grants in order to increase internet availability.
UETN reports that it currently has over 9,000 students who utilize videoconferencing software to take a variety of high school classes online. These types of solutions are only available thanks to Utah’s commitment to technology.
Competition is another key to progress. After the dramatic announcement that Google Fiber would be coming to Salt Lake City and that it would be rolling out one-Gigabit-per-second speeds, Comcast proclaimed that it was moving to offer two gigabits per second. And luckily for residents of the Beehive State, this "arms race" for faster internet speeds has increased availability and options.
Innovation is part of the state’s DNA, and Utah’s reputation as “business friendly” continues to pay dividends.
In fact, Utah has the highest internet speeds in the western United States and actually ranks eighth in the world, according to a recent study by Akamai, a content delivery network based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
This continued push toward faster speeds and more availability means that small-business owners can pursue their dreams from anywhere. Families can put down roots in alternative locations and not risk depriving their children of opportunities. In fact, most Utahns don’t have to be tied to a big city to be successful.
There are still plenty of challenges ahead, but the barriers are coming down. Utah’s combination of public and private sector cooperation, along with a healthy amount of corporate competition, means that things will only continue to get better—for all of Utah.
As Digital Inclusion Week comes to an end, check out activities in your area to get involved to help close the digital divide.
Alice is a health and wellness blogger at www.honestlyfitness.com. In addition to wellness, she enjoys writing about business, social media, tech and HR.