Earlier this week, Community Broadband Networks Director Christopher Mitchell joined the radio talk show 1A, distributed by NPR, to talk about poor connectivity in rural America and how the Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating existing digital divides. U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger from Virginia and ranch owner Tiya Tonn from Kansas also called into the show.
Digging Into the Divide
Christopher and 1A’s other guests explained how rural Americans across the country, from the mountains of Appalachia to the plains of Kansas, struggle with inadequate Internet access. Broadband quality varies greatly, so some households must rely on spotty cell phone hotspots or fast food Wi-Fi networks while neighbors several miles down the road may have access to fiber optic connectivity.
The pandemic is heightening the impacts of the rural digital divide on students and workers who now aren’t able to access their usual connectivity stopgaps, such as public Wi-Fi at libraries and schools. Tiya explained how the shaky broadband connection at her family’s ranch forces her to drive into town for routine activities, and her son spoke to the difficulties he experiences trying to attend online classes now that college campuses are closed.
But poor connectivity isn’t only a rural issue — people who lived near Houston and Columbus, Ohio, called into the show to share how they also can’t access high-speed broadband. Christopher added:
Even just three miles outside Chapel Hill, there are stories in North Carolina about people that are stuck on a technology that hasn’t been upgraded since before the kids that are in high school were born.
How to Expand Access
The guests also touched on government efforts to close the digital divide, particularly as Covid-19 highlights the connectivity crisis in rural America. Last week, Democrats in the U.S. House unveiled an updated plan to invest more than $80 billion in rural broadband expansion. Representative Spanberger described the importance of funding modern telecommunications infrastructure at this moment in time:
We are facing large economic challenges that we are going to have to invest in our country in order to overcome, and one of the major investments is in our broadband infrastructure. We are at a true pivot point like we were a century ago when rural communities were at risk of being left behind because electricity, while nice to have, wasn’t necessarily a requirement.
While elected officials at the federal level have often struggled to solve the rural broadband problem, local leaders have worked across the aisle to bring connectivity to their communities. “This is not at all partisan at the local level,” Christopher said. “It’s only in the state capitols and in Washington, D.C., that it takes on more of a partisan bent.”
The best chance for better connectivity in many rural communities is their local electric cooperative, Christopher argued. He explained:
Rural is not a wasteland for Internet access. North Dakota has tremendous Internet access, and that’s because local providers — cooperatives and local companies — have done a really good job of investing there. In many places that have been left behind, it’s because of the big companies that haven’t seen a reason to invest there because they’re focused on the urban areas.
In Tiya’s area for example, the local co-op has been steadily working to deploy fiber Internet access to rural households and businesses. Read our report, Cooperatives Fiberize Rural America, to learn what other co-ops are doing to connect their communities.
Listen to the full 1A segment on their website.
Photo of rural road in Marshall County, Indiana, by Derek Jensen. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC 2.0 BY).