Digital Equity in Rural Areas

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Monday, September 11, 2023

Digital Beat

Digital Equity in Rural Areas

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s Digital Equity Act recognizes eight “covered populations” as disproportionately experiencing digital inequity. These groups are to be a focus of efforts supported through grants and planning processes:

  1. Individuals living in households with incomes at or below 150 percent of the poverty line.
  2. Individuals 60 years of age or older.
  3. Veterans.
  4. Individuals with disabilities.
  5. Individuals with barriers to the English language (including English language learners and those with low literacy).
  6. Members of racial and ethnic minority groups.
  7. Individuals residing in rural areas.
  8. Individuals incarcerated in non-federal correctional facilities.

These groups experience difficulties accessing the internet for varied yet overlapping reasons. In this and upcoming articles, we look at data that explains why these populations are being targeted for digital equity efforts.

Individuals in Rural Areas

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the 46 million U.S. residents living in rural areas make up 14 percent of the U.S. population. Historically, internet providers have underserved rural areas due to a myriad of factors, including smaller rural populations providing fewer customers, decreased rural adoption rates, and more difficult rural terrain in comparison to urban areas. Even when internet is available in rural areas, less competition among limited providers may result in higher prices and limited speed options for residents.

According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, rural adults remain less likely than suburban adults to have home broadband and less likely than urban adults to own a smartphone, tablet computer, or traditional computer. Roughly seven in ten rural Americans (72 percent) say they have a broadband internet connection at home. Rural residents go online less frequently than their urban counterparts: Eight in ten adults who live in rural communities say they use the internet on at least a daily basis, compared with roughly nine in ten of those in urban areas (88 percent). In addition, three in ten or more urban (37 percent) and suburban (30 percent) residents say they are online almost constantly, while about a quarter of rural residents (23 percent) say the same.

In a 2018 Pew survey, adults who lived in rural areas were more likely to say access to high-speed internet was a major problem in their local community: 24 percent said this, compared with 13 percent of urban adults and 9 percent of suburban adults. Similar rates of concern about access to high-speed internet were shared by rural adults in both lower- and higher-income households, as well as by those with various levels of educational attainment.

These comparably lower levels of adoption among rural residents may be due to a unique feature of rural life. Even though rural areas are more wired today than in the past, current infrastructure does not support consistently dependable broadband access in many rural areas.

There are 341 persistently poor counties in the United States. And approximately 85 percent of persistent-poverty counties are nonmetro, accounting for about 15 percent of all nonmetro counties. Persistently poor counties are more racially and ethnically diverse than counties that are not persistently poor.(1) While minority groups make up a smaller share of the overall rural population compared with urban areas, the groups are often highly concentrated in persistent-poverty clusters.(2) Nonmetro Blacks/African Americans had the highest incidence of poverty in 2019 (30.7 percent), while nonmetro American Indians/Alaska Natives had the second-highest rate (29.6 percent). The poverty rate for nonmetro Whites in 2019 was less than half as much (13.3 percent) of both of those other groups. Nonmetro Hispanics had the third-highest poverty rate of any individual race or ethnicity—21.7 percent.

For more see:


  1. According to the USDA, Whites make up 79.3 percent of the non-metro population located outside of persistent poverty counties but only 52.9 percent of persistent poverty counties. Conversely, nonmetro Blacks make up 5.2 percent of the non-metro population located outside of persistent poverty counties but 25.1 percent within nonmetro persistent poverty counties. Hispanics and American Indians also have higher shares of persistent poverty populations.
  2. In the 153 rural persistent poverty counties located in the southeastern Coastal Plains stretching from North Carolina to Louisiana and Arkansas, Blacks make up 43.3 percent of the population. In Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado, 63.1 percent of the population in the 39 rural persistent poverty counties are Hispanics. American Indians make up 45.5 percent of residents in the 34 rural persistent poverty counties in Alaska, Arizona, Oklahoma, Utah, and the northern Great Plains. The remaining 75 rural persistent poverty counties are predominantly White (88.9 percent) and are located mostly in the southern Appalachians and the Ozarks.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

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