Bringing Broadband to Digital Deserts

To go from desert to oasis, you need water. To go from digital desert to oasis of opportunity, we need broadband.

For nearly 35 years, the Benton Foundation has promoted policy solutions to make sure all Americans have equitable and affordable access to information infrastructure and to information and knowledge essential to community and individual development.

Today’s priority is broadband. It has a crucial impact on the economy – creating efficiencies, improving productivity, and accelerating innovation. And it is an essential service that is for education, public health, and public safety.

Some segments of the U.S. population have reached near-100 percent broadband adoption rates. For these populations, market forces have been sufficient to get us toward our goal of universal adoption. But there are nagging, persistent divides in broadband deployment and adoption – what Benton’s executive director, Adrianne Furniss, calls “digital deserts.”

To reach universal adoption and realize a truly inclusive digital society, we must understand why market forces are not enough to connect everyone and we must seek solutions that close these digital divides.

Broadband Adoption Growing

First, the good news. Over the past 8 years, we’ve seen some solid growth in broadband subscribership:(1)

  • In 2007, 47% of all adult Americans had a broadband connection at home. By 2015, 67% of all adult Americans had a broadband connection at home and an additional 13% of adults had smartphone access.
  • In 2007, home broadband subscribership in rural areas was 31%. Now Home broadband subscribership in rural areas is 55% and an additional 15% of rural residents rely on smartphone access.
  • In 2007, 40% of African Americans had a broadband connection at home. Now 54% of African Americans have a broadband connection at home and another 19% rely on smartphone access.

But ‘Digital Deserts’ Remain

Even though the U.S. has made great gains in broadband adoption, on January 29, 2016, the FCC released its latest Broadband Progress Report, finding that broadband is not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.

In many rural areas and Tribal Lands, people still lack access to any or adequate broadband service. In fact, Americans who live in rural areas are ten times more likely to be unserved than their urban counterparts. And many schools, especially in rural areas, lack access to the broadband service they need to deliver 21st century educational opportunities. Ten percent of the U.S. population still lacks access to fixed broadband at speeds of at least 25 Mbps for downloads/3 Mbps for uploads and 6 percent of Americans lack access to even 10/1 broadband service. In 2011, the FCC reformed Universal Service Fund support networks capable of providing voice and broadband services, both fixed and mobile, to all Americans throughout the nation.(2)

Specifically, the FCC identified the following digital deserts and the actions it has taken to extend the reach of broadband:

  • In 2015, the FCC committed $1.5 billion in annual support to ten telecommunications carriers to bring broadband to over 3.6 million rural homes and businesses by the end of 2020.(3) This support, along with carrier investment, will expand broadband to nearly 7.3 million rural consumers in 45 states and one U.S. territory.
  • 39 percent of the rural population (23.4 million Americans), and 41 percent of residents of Tribal Lands (1.6 million Americans) lack access to 25/3 Mbps service. As noted above, there are some important FCC programs like the Connect America Fund and Lifeline that are targeted to help Native Americans connect – but we need to upgrade the Lifeline program, in particular, for the broadband and smartphone era.
  • Only 59 percent of schools have met the FCC’s short-term goal of purchasing service that delivers at least 100 Mbps per 1,000 users. In 2014, the FCC modernized the schools and libraries universal service support mechanism, better known as the E-rate program, to help improve broadband deployment and Internet speeds to schools and, by making available funding for Wi-Fi networks within schools, to classrooms as well.(4) The FCC also raised the funding cap on the E-rate program to make available an additional $1.5 billion in support.

    The schools across the country with quality broadband are moving quickly to adopt digital textbooks and flipped learning where students need Internet access to complete homework assignments. In fact, today, roughly seven in ten teachers assign homework that requires access to the Internet, but one in three households does not have that access at home. Think about it. It means that today, some 5 million households with school-age children do not have high-speed Internet service at home – lacking the ability to take full advantage of digital learning opportunities. Low-income households – and especially black and Hispanic ones – make up a disproportionate share of that 5 million. As the White House has highlighted, “While many middle-class U.S. students go home to Internet access, allowing them to do research, write papers, and communicate digitally with their teachers and other students, too many lower-income children go unplugged every afternoon when school ends. This “homework gap” runs the risk of widening the achievement gap, denying hardworking students the benefit of a technology-enriched education.” We need to bring broadband to these homes and make sure every child, regardless of where they live or how much their parents make, have the same opportunities to learn and succeed.

Beyond what the FCC measured, there are a number of other places where extending broadband’s reach, as Adrianne writes, could be like bringing water to a digital desert:

The Public School Bus Desert
Every day an estimated 25 million children (roughly half of American’s school children) ride a school bus to and from school – but lack Internet access on the bus to work on homework. For long commutes in rural America, it can waste hours of school homework time. Many schools are now opting to take advantage of the ubiquity of today’s 4G networks to provide students access with mobile Wi-Fi while on the bus. And when buses can provide Internet access, some districts have even parked the buses in poor neighborhoods to enable students without home Internet access to do their homework at night. At a time when new cars are often sporting WiFi hotspots, we shouldn’t be relegating our children’s future to the back of the bus. We should be giving kids access to the same kinds of WiFi technologies that commuter buses offer.

The Public Transit Desert
Americans spend more time commuting than almost anyone else. However, those that travel by bus, by subway or train often lack WiFi access, or have substandard access, for what should be one of the most productive parts of their day. Airlines regularly provide WiFi, why can’t we do something similar closer to home?

The Public Housing Desert
Today, roughly 1.2 million households live in public housing units. Pew Research Center data suggests these low-income residents are more likely to rely on wireless access for Internet access, but the cinder blocks and cement walls that are common in public housing structures are often not conducive to good Internet access. Broadband access can be especially important to this population for access to jobs, health care, and government programs. President Barack Obama has launched his ConnectHome initiative to take several important steps to help bridge the public housing gap – including efforts at HUD to support broadband as units are constructed and rehabilitated. But we need to finish the job and ensure that every public housing building provides access to broadband.

The National Park Desert
In our national parks, wireless Internet access could be considered an endangered species. Even though cell phone service and the ability to call 911 can be a life saver when in the wild, the National Park Service is only now conducting trials of cell phone service in a few of its parks, and most lodges lack broadband access. The Park Service indicates that places like Glacier National Park has “very limited” cell phone connectivity, and Yellowstone only has 50% connectivity. We need to make sure that our national treasures are treated as such and connected to broadband so that we have better emergency communications, and so that more people can enjoy their full glory, even if they are unable to visit.

To go from desert to oasis, you need water. To go from digital desert to oasis of opportunity, we need broadband. Market forces, acting almost like rain, have been sufficient for the populations that face no significant broadband barriers. But for too many areas and households, we are seeing the limits to the power of free markets to drive universal broadband deployment and adoption. That means policymakers are obligated to step in to help create policies that drive investment and encourage adoption. What we need is a little irrigation so we can start to grow digital opportunity where the rain has yet to fall.

Amina Fazlullah is the Director of Policy at the Benton Foundation.

Please also see Happy 20th Anniversary, Telecommunications Act: A Day to Recommit to Universal Broadband Access by Adrianne B. Furniss.

  1. Sources: 1) Horrigan, John and Aaron Smith. Home Broadband Adoption 2007. Pew Research Center (2007). ( and Horrigan, John and Maeve Duggan. Home Broadband 2015. Pew Research Center (2015). (
  2. Connect America Fund et al., Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, 26 FCC Rcd 17663 (2011) (2011 USF/ICC Transformation Order), pets. for review denied sub nom., In re FCC 11-161, 753 F.3d 1015 (10th Cir. 2014).
  3. Carriers Accept Over $1.5Billion in Annual Support from Connect America Fund to Expand and Support Broadband for Nearly 7.3 Million Rural Consumers in 45 States and One Territory, Press Release, 30 FCC Rcd 8577 (WCB 2015). The carriers accepting support include AT&T, Cincinnati Bell, CenturyLink, Consolidated Communications, Fairpoint Communications, Frontier Communications, Hawaiian Telecom, Micronesian Telecom, Verizon and Windstream.
  4. Modernizing the E-Rate Program for Schools and Libraries, Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, 29 FCC Rcd 8870 (2014) (E-rate Modernization Order); Modernizing the E-rate Program for Schools and Libraries, WC Dockets No. 13-184, 10-90, Second Report and Order and Order on Reconsideration, FCC 29 FCC Rcd 15538 (2014) (Second E-rate Modernization Order).