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America’s Digital Divide

From commerce and culture to social connection, almost no segment of contemporary life is untouched by the internet. In many rural communities, limited broadband access remains a barrier to 21st-century connectivity.

rural broadband access
Source: Flickr
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Congressional representatives spent most of last week’s recess back in their home districts, answering questions about the Trump impeachment inquiry. Two New York State representatives, though, spent their time off tackling an entirely different and undercovered issue: rural broadband access.

Paul Tonko (NY-20), whose district includes Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, and Antonio Delgado (NY-19), whose district includes most of the Mid-Hudson Valley and rural Delaware, Sullivan, Schoharie, and Otsego counties, both held events on October 4 with Federal Communications Commission members to discuss broadband access in rural upstate New York.

Tonko’s event included the FCC commissioner as part of a roundtable in Albany. Tonko said that he’s heard from many of his constituents about the negative impacts of poor internet access, including “doctors who depend on the web to read X-rays, librarians who find children sitting in the parking lot after hours to finish their homework, and employees who travel in search of internet capable of downloading large files,” according to the Times-Union.

Tonko says broadband should be treated as essential infrastructure for all Americans. “In the digital age of the 21st century, broadband is essential to how we communicate, certainly how we exchange information about business, and engage in the democratic process,” he said.

A few hours later, in Hudson, Rep. Delgado hosted a congressional field hearing with the FCC commissioner in attendance, where local stakeholders and community members could sound off in a public forum about the quality, or lack thereof, of internet services in their region. (WGXC posted audio of the entire event.) Like Tonko, Delgado noted that small businesses, families, schools, and healthcare providers are struggling with reliable broadband access, which is adversely affecting the local economy and health outcomes.

“Clearly, every address that gets electricity should get broadband,” testified David Berman, the co-chair of Connect Columbia, a community action group. “Just like electricity, which runs many devices essential to our lives, large-capacity communication capability is far more than voice, internet, email, and tweets.”

Current data mapping methods overstate broadband penetration in rural areas. Source: FCC

Charting the Problem

Both Tonko and Delgado have proven track records on the issue of rural broadband access: Tonko sponsors the ACCESS BROADBAND Act, a bill that improves coordination and community access to federal broadband resources, and which has successfully passed with bipartisan support in the House of Representatives only to go nowhere in the Senate. And earlier this year, Delgado joined the newly formed House Task Force on Rural Broadband, and, with Tonko, helped secure some $680 million in a House appropriations package for the “expansion of broadband service to provide economic development opportunities and improved education and healthcare services.”

Delgado also successfully amended the bill to change the flawed way broadband access is mapped. At the time, Delgado noted that today’s broadband availability maps rely on unverified provider-reported data at the census-block level, resulting in maps that overstate coverage in rural communities.

“In other words, if one house on one block can purchase coverage, the whole block is deemed served. You will never close the digital divide [by] relying on bad data,” Delgado said. “My amendment prevents the National Telecommunications and Information Administration from relying solely on census-block data for broadband availability maps. Bad data yields bad maps, and this critical amendment will put an end to it.”

To state the obvious: Nearly every segment of American life relies to some degree on the internet. But according to a Pew Research Center survey last year, 24 percent of rural Americans say high-speed internet is a “major problem” in their area, more than urban and suburban respondents combined. An additional 34 percent of rural respondents called high-speed internet access a “minor” problem, which means nearly six in 10 Americans in rural areas believe there’s a connectivity problem in their area. They’re also less likely to use a smartphone to access the internet.

The mapping issue helps mask the problem from a data point of view, but the real culprit is that old familiar bugaboo: money. The profit-driven incentives of the main internet service providers (ISPs) don’t always align with rural needs. As Pew notes:

For years, policymakers and advocates have looked to address broadband-related gaps between rural and nonrural communities in subscriptions, infrastructure, performance, and competition. Data from the Federal Communications Commission show that rural areas are less likely to be wired for broadband services and tend to have slower internet speeds compared with other areas of the country. There are also fewer broadband providers operating in rural areas, which means consumers tend to have limited options when subscribing to high-speed services.

In short: it is more expensive to connect rural areas, and what service does exist is often poorer in quality and more costly for the customer.

Many internet service providers also use outdated technology, like DSL (digital subscriber line) which transmits digital data over telephone lines and doesn’t meet growing demand for service. With little competition, the ISPs don’t have to upgrade their infrastructure. That’s why some communities are taking matters into their own hands. In Minnesota, for example, cooperatives and municipalities have built many Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks to bring fast, affordable, and reliable internet service to rural areas throughout the state. In Tennessee, FTTH networks have increased speeds in eight cities and towns between six and 25 times over the past 10 years, with little to no price increase for the consumer.

The media is rife with stories and reports on the seemingly ever-growing political and cultural divisions between rural and urban America, but the digital divide has knock-on effects that play out over periods of time more lengthy than the news cycle. It’s not just that the rural YouTube watcher will see a lower-quality video or spend more time on the load screen on Netflix, but access to information, job opportunities, and critical services are also affected. A report from the Brookings Institute noted:

[R]ural schools lack access to high-speed fiber and pay more than twice as much for bandwidth. In a growing world of personalized online curricula, internet-based research, and online testing, this severely restricts rural students from educational opportunities their urban counterparts may enjoy.

Furthermore, rural communities may be unable to access critical government services. From Social Security to FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), government services are transitioning to online access. Tax forms and services are being increasingly streamlined through online portals and tools, and with limited broadband speed, rural America may struggle to access these services.

The degree to which opportunity, services, and internet access are linked makes reliable connectivity not just an economic issue but a social justice one: Nonwhite residents and those with lower levels of education and income are less likely to have broadband service at home.

There is little data quantifying the economic toll or potential benefit of limited internet access (it’s been more than a decade since the last nationwide report on the impact of broadband was released, as part of the National Broadband Plan). Earlier this year, the Senate passed the bipartisan Measuring the Economic Impact of Broadband Act of 2019, which would require the Bureau of Economic Analysis to conduct a study every two years of the effects of broadband deployment and adoption on the US economy, sponsored by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Shelly Capito (R-WV). In the House, Rep. Ro Khanna (CA-17) plans to reintroduce companion legislation.

Thankfully, this seems to be one topic on which there’s bipartisan agreement—on the problem, if not the solution. (As Khanna told Wired: Stakeholders like the FCC are looking at broadband funding “as a cost, not as an investment that’s going to pay dividends tenfold over.”) Earlier this year, the White House announced the American Broadband Initiative to boost broadband infrastructure. And organizations like the Community Broadband Networks Initiative from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance are helping local communities develop their own telecommunications infrastructure without having to rely on the main commercial providers.

It’s a start, but on the evidence of the two events held last Friday, there’s still a long way to go until results are felt in upstate New York. As Delgado said to kick off his hearing: “There is no service in this auditorium. This, unfortunately, is not an exception.”

Phillip Pantuso is the editor of The River, and has contributed to the Guardian, the New York Times, and Yes! Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @phillippantuso.