Apr 23 2021

Closing the Digital Divide in Rural America

The lack of access to high-speed broadband in rural parts of the country threatens economic development, experts say. Here’s the state of play on the rural digital divide.

Former congressman Rick Boucher spends a lot of time these days with his wife at a house high in the mountains of western Virginia, in rural Grayson County.

Boucher, honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance, says that the local exchange carrier, CenturyLink, has not deployed internet access facilities throughout much of the sparsely populated county. By Boucher’s reckoning, more than half of the residents of the county lack internet access at home.

“It’s a major hindrance to development,” says Boucher, who spent more than two decades in Congress and served as chair of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet. “It’s very difficult to persuade companies that need to have fast internet access for their facilities to locate in a place where, even when the access is provided, it’s not the highest speed. And this typifies a lot of rural America, so it is a major need.”

The lack of broadband availability in many rural areas is one of the major elements of the digital divide in the U.S. Federal policymakers and lawmakers have long identified expanding broadband access to rural parts of the country as an urgent need, but little has been done.

A February 2020 report from BroadbandNow, a firm that provides independent data and research on broadband access and policy, found 42 million U.S. residents lacked access to broadband internet. That figure was nearly double the Federal Communication Commission’s estimate of 21.3 million people, a statistic from the commission’s “2019 Broadband Deployment Report.”

The rural digital divide is real, and the Biden administration’s recently unveiled “American Jobs Plan” infrastructure package includes $100 billion to expand broadband coverage to 100 percent of the country.

What Is the Digital Divide in Rural Areas?

According to a White House fact sheet on the American Jobs Plan, more than 30 million Americans live in areas “where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds.” The FCC’s definition of broadband is a minimum of 25 megabits per second for downlink and 3Mbps for uplink, though independent experts have said those speeds are insufficient for many modern applications.

“Millions of Americans, though, lack access to reliable high-speed internet, including more than 35 percent of rural America,” Biden said in a March 31 speech on the infrastructure plan. “It’s a disparity even more pronounced during this pandemic. American Jobs will make sure … every single American has access to high quality, affordable, high-speed internet for businesses, for schools.”

The gap exists in rural America because it’s not economically beneficial for internet service providers to lay fiber and provide broadband connections in many sparsely populated parts of the country. The return on investment simply isn’t there.

“That’s why we have the gap,” Boucher says. “You know, if carriers could make money, they would already be doing that. They would have closed the gap, and they haven’t because they can’t receive the return required to deploy the facilities.”

30 Million+

The number of Americans who live in areas “where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds.”

Source: "Fact Sheet: The American Jobs Plan," The White House, March 31, 2021

“I think there’s a bipartisan recognition in Congress today that it needs to provide the funds in order to close the gap,” Boucher adds.

Tyler Cooper, editor in chief at BroadbandNow, notes that during the pandemic “there were millions of Americans who woke up to the idea that broadband is no longer a luxury, right? It’s a pretty much a prerequisite for modern living.”

“And so in rural America, where broadband has, in large part, never really been a facet of life, all of a sudden that’s a very rude awakening,” he adds, “because all of a sudden your income is tied to that, and your ability for your children to learn is tied to that.”

EXPLORE: How does municipal broadband aid communities?

What Is the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund?

There have been many attempts at the federal level to address the rural digital divide in the past. One of the more recent efforts is the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which has sought to use reverse auction revenue to “bring high speed fixed broadband service to rural homes and small businesses that lack it,” according to an FCC fact sheet. The fund sought to raise $20.4 billion, to be paid out over 10 years.

The Phase I auction, which began Oct. 29, 2020, and ended Nov. 25, 2020, awarded “support to bring broadband to over five million homes and businesses in census blocks that were entirely unserved by voice and broadband with download speeds of at least 25 Mbps,” according to the FCC. The agency said that Phase II will “cover locations in census blocks that are partially served, as well as locations not funded in Phase I.”

As The New Yorker reports, enthusiasm for the RDOF waned after the winners of the auction were announced:

The bid of the biggest winner, LTD Broadband, a small Las Vegas-based wireless-service provider, was 1.3 billion dollars, to provide high-speed Internet to more than half a million locations in fifteen states, even though the company’s primary focus has been wireless technology, not fiber-optic broadband, and a number of broadband experts questioned whether it would be able to achieve the speed and fiber-optic capabilities on which the grant was premised.

Concerns abound about other auction winners and whether they have the capability to provide to the millions of rural Americans who desperately need broadband, according to The New Yorker. The FCC says it “will only award funding after a review process that determines whether the winning bidders will be able to carry out their proposals,” the publication reports.

Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler tells The New Yorker that in 2016, shortly before leaving office, his team at the commission conducted a study and determined that the most cost-effective way to deliver broadband was for the government to fund it up front, the same way it pays for highways and airports. “The analysis we did showed that for about 40 billion dollars, we could deliver fiber to ninety-eight percent of all the unconnected locations in the country,” he says.

Blair Levin, a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, who in 2009 oversaw the development of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, is a critic of the RDOF program and says that former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was too quick to declare victory for the initiative.

Though he acknowledged he hasn’t examined every bidder and all of the details, Levin says that he suspects “there are number of winners in that auction that I think are quite questionable. And I know, because I’ve talked to a lot of people in rural areas who are really upset because they’re kind of stuck. They’re not going to get the benefit.”

Policies to Close the Rural Digital Divide

To solve the broadband access problem, experts largely agree that there needs to be a major investment in broadband infrastructure, and in laying fiber out to rural areas. There is an intense debate over the best way to go about that and how to pay for it.

In March, a group of House Democrats introduced the Leading Infrastructure For Tomorrow’s America — the Lift America Act — which would allocate $80 billion to deploy high-speed broadband across the U.S. “by funding connections to unserved and underserved areas in rural, suburban and urban parts of the country,” as Smart Cities Dive reports.

Around the same time, Sens. Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar introduced the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, which would allocate the same amount of money for broadband deployment.

Meanwhile, Biden’s plan, which ISPs have criticized as being tilted against incumbent broadband providers, calls for “building ‘future proof’ broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas so that we finally reach 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage,” according to a White House fact sheet.

It also prioritizes “support for broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives — providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities.”

Tyler Cooper, Editor in Chief, BroadbandNow
There were millions of Americans who woke up to the idea that broadband is no longer a luxury, right? It’s a pretty much a prerequisite for modern living.”

Tyler Cooper Editor in Chief, BroadbandNow

Boucher says that public-private partnerships are needed to bring more broadband access to rural America.

“You’ve got long distances between likely settled communities,” he notes. “You’ve got challenging terrain, lots of variables that you have to climb, rivers to cross. All of that costs a lot of money. And then when your fiber-optic line reaches a small community, you may find that the uptake rate is lower than the national average, because often rural areas struggle financially. And people just may not in the end be able to afford it or may decide to spend their money doing other things.”

A public-private partnership with cost sharing between the carriers and the government would help cover the costs, Boucher argues.

Cooper says the FCC needs to have updated, more accurate data and maps that show who lacks access to broadband. Without that, there will not be substantial progress in closing the divide, no matter how much money is thrown at the problem.

“You cannot manage what you do not measure,” acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in late January, according to CNET. “But for too long, the FCC has lacked the data it needs about precisely where service is and is not throughout the country.”

However, as CNET reports, thanks to $65 million Congress allocated to the FCC in December, the commission is now requiring ISPs to “share more detailed data, giving a better picture of what areas are unserved by broadband” and will open coverage maps to public feedback.

“I think if there is a silver lining, it’s this: There’s this surge of awareness happening right now about the digital divide in a way that I personally have never seen,” Cooper says. “And it’s causing waves, especially at the highest levels.”

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