Way back in the mid-1990s, I had a crush on a pretty girl in my grandmother's rural Idaho hometown.

Unlike the young women in my own, more sophisticated high school, my friend in Idaho liked me back, and we would have spent more time talking--but her landline was clogged up with the early internet, and all I ever got was a busy signal.

(Eventually we got tired of not talking, and in the middle of the night she jumped from the window in her third story bedroom and snuck over to my grandmother's house. That was rural dial-up internet in 1996: so bad it could literally make you jump out a window.)

Most people don't access the telephone via telephone lines anymore, so the idea that in 2019 the internet would come to your home through a traditional copper telephone line seems ridiculous.

Unless you live in rural or small-town America.

According to the United States Department of Commerce, more than 20 million Americans--roughly 39 percent of the nation's rural residents--lack access to broadband.

And that's a problem.

The political, cultural, and economic divide between urban and rural America is sharp--and growing. And with more than half of all net new job creation in the United States coming from just five large urban areas (New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, and Miami), that divide is only going to continue to widen.

Broadband isn't the only issue facing rural America, and investing in high-speed internet in Council Grove, Kansas, isn't going to make it a contender for Amazon's next nationwide wild-goose chase.

But improving our digital infrastructure will help more entrepreneurs in rural communities and smaller towns and cities compete against their metropolitan counterparts.

"High-speed internet is such a powerful tool, which seems like a crazy thing to say--unless you don't have access to it," said Wayne Reilly, president of Creative TRND USA division. Reilly started his entrepreneurial journey in Post Falls, Idaho. "Even in the middle of Antarctica, with a good Wi-Fi signal you can succeed. With the right resources, you can achieve global success from any small town."

Of course, faster download speeds won't make Americans lock arms, forget all our differences, and become a more united country.

Political division has only grown as more of the country's citizens feel structurally locked out of economic opportunity. If you're a smart kid growing up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, in 2019, you have access to learning opportunities and information your parents never dreamed of. That doesn't mean every kid growing up in the suburbs of Dallas will succeed--far from it--but it does mean you have access to the tools modern humans need to be economically competitive.

If you're a kid growing up in Dallas, Arkansas?

It's a different story.

If you're a kid growing up in Dallas, Texas, who loves your hometown, you're fortunate to live in one of the strongest local economies in the world. If you're a kid growing up in Dallas, Arkansas, who loves where you are growing up, you may have to choose between your home and moving for economic opportunity.

Expanding broadband access to all of America won't turn Dallas, Arkansas, into Dallas, Texas. But it will increase economic opportunities for Americans who want to live in rural places--and those people do exist.

Disenfranchisement is not limited to rural communities. But while we certainly haven't solved every issue facing urban residents, there is an urgency and energy toward improving economic opportunity in cities that is lacking in the discussion about rural communities.

We can change that.

One place to start might be investing in improving access to broadband.

Published on: Nov 12, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.