Under Social Distancing, Rural Regions Push For More Broadband

By: - May 14, 2020 12:00 am

Ashley Bullard, left, sits on the porch of her family’s rural home in North Sandwich, New Hampshire, as her daughters Raven, center, and Willow, right, try to complete their classwork from home on a very limited internet connection. As the coronavirus pandemic lays bare America’s digital divide, some advocates argue that now is the time to make a big, bold investment in the country’s broadband infrastructure. Charles Krupa/The Associated Press

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In 1936, roughly 90% of America’s urban areas had access to electricity, while roughly the same proportion of rural America was still in the dark. The Rural Electrification Act, signed that year as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, turned on the lights in isolated rural areas. 

As the coronavirus pandemic lays bare America’s digital divide, some advocates argue that now is the time to make a big, bold investment in the country’s broadband infrastructure.

“If there was ever a moment to do the rural electrification of our time, this is it,” said Matt Dunne, executive director of the Center on Rural Innovation in Hartland, Vermont.

So far, some critics argue, federal aid to rural areas — and federal money for rural broadband in particular — has fallen short. The $2 trillion CARES Act, which Congress passed in late March, included money for states, big cities and large counties, but it did not directly funnel cash to communities with fewer than 500,000 residents.

Fourteen states, including hard-hit Iowa, Louisiana and Mississippi, have no urban or rural counties that qualified for those direct payments. And given the revenue losses to state budgets across the country, it’s unclear how much of the federal money states can afford to give to local governments.

Some states are considering using some of their CARES Act money to expand broadband to underserved areas. If their efforts are successful, rural areas will be among the biggest beneficiaries.

Broadband can be delivered through fiber, fixed wireless, digital subscriber line (DSL), or cable. Laying fiber is a major infrastructure project, and states that want to use CARES Act money to expand access may be thwarted by a federal requirement that the money be used by the end of the year.

In Vermont, which is one of the states considering using its federal aid to invest in broadband, it’ll take three months from the time the state receives the money and approves the necessary legislation to even choose a contractor, according to the Vermont Department of Public Service, which would oversee the project. It will take at least three years to complete the work.

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 22% of Americans in rural areas and 28% of Americans in tribal lands lack broadband coverage — as opposed to 1.5% of Americans in urban areas, a gap that’s narrowed since 2015. Overall, according to the FCC, 21 million Americans lack broadband access, though some experts say the FCC data vastly overestimates broadband connectivity. (The Pew Charitable Trusts, which funds Stateline, also supports a broadband research initiative.)

“In the past when there’s been an economic disruption like this, rural places have been an afterthought, and the repercussions of that we’re still dealing with today,” said Dunne, who founded the Center on Rural Innovation to address the rural economic crisis and opportunity gap as a result of the Great Recession.

“I’m hopeful that we can take a different approach as a country and make sure we have a strategy that is inclusive of all of America,” he said.

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April Simpson

April Simpson reports on rural issues at Stateline. Before joining Pew, Simpson was associate editor of Current, where she covered public broadcasting and nonprofit media.