COMMENTARY | Bridging the rural-urban digital divide will depend on fundamental shifts in how we deploy money toward infrastructure in rural areas.
The urban-rural digital divide remains a significant challenge across the United States. As connectivity speeds and technology improve, the gap widens each year. Now more than ever, it’s important to address these issues of inadequate internet access in rural communities before the effects become irreparable.
In many cases, the massive funds required to deploy networks and build infrastructure have been a serious roadblock. The underlying problem is that there is no good way to ensure companies can get a decent return on their investment in rural high-speed internet access. Consequently, rural areas don’t see much expansion in network availability. Despite government sources trying to fix this growing crisis, their allocated funds haven’t worked as planned.
Infrastructure funding through the years
In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA, was designed to stimulate economies and cover infrastructure project expenditures like bringing internet access to rural areas. The government agencies charged with putting ARRA grant money into communities wanted shovel-ready projects. Unfortunately, most internet initiatives weren’t at that stage and failed because they were pushed ahead without prior research and due diligence.
In recent years, other programs like ARRA have come out with varying degrees of success. The Connect America Fund offered two rounds of grant project money, whereas the Rural Placemaking Innovation Challenge pushed out a little bit of capital without much success. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Reverse Auction—perhaps the best opportunity at deploying the most capital—had issues with a lawed bidding process and inadequate bidder qualification before the auction began, resulting in capital that won’t be deployed as originally promised.
Furthermore, less than half of the auction-based grants have been awarded by the FCC to date. Like so many exciting ideas, these funds and challenges ended up being ineffective and inefficient.
Why funding for rural internet access has been ineffective
In many cases, the core dilemma is that the resources and agencies asked to deploy capital aren’t using accurate maps or data. Additionally, plans and programs specifically designed to bridge the digital divide are not dispersed evenly across the United States, leaving some rural communities completely in the dark. In one situation, Missouri was successful in obtaining Connect America Fund and Rural Digital Opportunity Fund finances. As a result, rural Missouri communities saw a fast-growing internet network spring up from where none had once been.
In contrast, Texas, which has some extremely rural regions, never even had the opportunity to tap into similar grant funding opportunities. Texas communities were inevitably overlooked because the census block data wasn’t validated for accuracy at the state or local level. Many areas that were unserved and underserved by internet providers weren’t given an opportunity to move forward, ultimately leaving these Texas rural areas with no chance to reach digital equality.
Shedding light on rural communities' needs
Recently, policymakers have begun to identify this disconnect between rural and urban America and adjust to address it. Fortunately, many recognize that money alone won’t be enough to bring internet access to rural areas. They must adhere to the following proactive steps if change is to occur:
1. Commit to supporting rural communities
There appears to be a lack of understanding at the policymaker level about who does and doesn’t have internet access across America. Government agencies need to be committed to listening to and learning from their constituents. Having more conversations will set the stage for more pertinent, needed economic development.
2. Bring school districts into the discussion
Many school districts in rural areas are struggling due to a lack of high-speed internet, but often internet access conversations don’t include school districts. In some cases, districts are unaware of the state-based funding options like the E-rate program that are available to help cover internet-related bills and improve broadband connectivity. Allowing school districts to have a voice at the table will clear up some of the disconnect regarding internet options in rural communities.
3. Leverage community partnerships
Policymakers are not always aware that neighborhoods are missing out on internet opportunities while others have strong signals and networks. Some rural cities and towns across the nation have figured out ways to deploy their own fiber networks with the help of local businesses to help carry the load. In many cases, stakeholders in rural communities have one or two of the puzzle pieces required to bring connectivity to the areas. When multiple stakeholders come to the table, great things can happen.
Despite the lack of internet access and subpar infrastructure in many rural communities, there is no better time to finally bridge the digital divide in America as the rollout of Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act money gets underway. Especially since these investments are being run differently than other programs. That’s enough to encourage hope that the promise baked into these funds will come to fruition.
With innovative thinking, a willingness to let go of past initiatives that fell through, and a strong understanding of the needs of each unique community, policymakers can equip rural areas with internet access like never before.
Tamra Reynolds is the managing director at CoBank, a national cooperative bank serving vital industries across rural America by providing loans, leases, export financing and other financial services in all 50 states.