Everybody complains about the Rural Broadband Divide, but nobody does anything about it

 You’re reading the Benton Foundation’s Weekly Round-up, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) telecommunications stories of the week. The round-up is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of September 10-14, 2018

Robbie McBeath

How can we solve the rural broadband digital divide? On September 6, the Broadband Connects America (a new coalition which includes the Benton Foundation) offered a set of principles for attacking the problem. With countless federal, state, and local projects underway, if there's any telecom policy consensus these days, it is on this: we need better broadband data.

The Rural Broadband Divide

Broadband access in rural areas is a big problem. Over 30% of rural Americans (approximately 19 million households) do not have access to broadband at home. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) released a report this week that claims that lack of broadband access for 6.3 million electric co-op households alone results in more than $68 billion in lost economic value. 

And it’s no surprise to people living in rural America. The Pew Research Center published research on Monday that revealed 24% of rural adults say access to high-speed internet is a major problem in their local community.  An additional 34% of rural residents see this as a minor problem, meaning that roughly six-in-ten rural Americans (58%) believe access to high-speed internet is a problem in their area.

A Washington Post article this week painfully demonstrated the real-world consequences of this divide. In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R-AR) announced that 4,353 people have become ineligible for Medicaid because they failed to meet new requirements, the first Americans to lose the safety-net health insurance under rules compelling recipients to work or prepare for a job to keep their coverage. Under Arkansas Works, the state’s expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, able-bodied adults must go online every month and report their hours of work or other community engagement. They lose insurance if they fail to comply for three months in a year.

Leaders at medical health clinics and legal advocates for the poor say logistics of the work rules are “ill-suited to the lives of many poor Arkansans, who may not have computer access to report their hours online or may not have even received — or understood — letters the state sent telling them how to stay on Medicaid.” Statewide, nearly a fourth of the population lives in areas in which Internet service is not available. Even when they have cellphones, many low-income people have plans in which they pay by the minute, making it unlikely they would spend their minutes to report work hours, the Washington Post reported. 

Solutions, Big and Small

The brighter news this week is that there are several organizations who have announced new initiatives to tackle the rural broadband divide. 

Broadband Connects America

The Benton Foundation joined 17 other organizations in Broadband Connects America, a coalition to connect rural America. 

The coalition offered the Principles to Connect Rural America aimed at policymakers and legislators across the country and both sides of the aisle. These principles will serve as guidelines for policymakers as they consider how to fund rural broadband deployment projects.

The five rural broadband principles are:

  1. Funding should be simple and allocated directly to infrastructure needs, not directly to last-mile carriers.
  2. Closing the rural digital divide will require a combination of approaches that reflects the complexity of the challenges of deploying broadband to rural America.
  3. Deployment should be focused on achieving tangible, affordable universal service to all rural Americans rather than allocated based on profit per population density.
  4. Restoring net neutrality is essential to closing the rural digital divide.
  5. Rural Americans’ access to high-speed internet should not be disadvantaged because of geography.

[For more, see Groups Launch Broadband Connects America Coalition to End Rural Digital Divide]

News from Rural Communities

Many smaller communities are working on solutions to the rural broadband divide. Just this week we learned:

Federal Funds: The e-Connectivity Pilot

On September 10, comments were due for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service's (RUS) $600 million e-Connectivity Pilot program, an initiative aimed at expanding broadband access in rural areas. USDA is developing this pilot program to catalyze private investment and bring broadband to unserved rural areas of the country. The new program provides a unique opportunity to develop modern methods to leverage federal funds to increase private investment in broadband services for as many rural American homes, businesses, farms, schools, and healthcare facilities as possible. RUS specifically sought comment on ways of evaluating a rural household’s 'sufficient access' to broadband e-Connectivity at speeds of 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream, and how broadband service affordability should be factored in.

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly offered his guidance to ensure program funds are “spent as efficiently as possible and target to areas most in need of support." Commissioner O’Rielly wants RUS to: 

  • Focus on truly unserved populations in defining "sufficient access." "Subsidizing buildout in areas where one or multiple providers already offers service is an ineffective use of limited resources and moreover undermine parties' incentives to invest in broadband buildout in the future. 'Sufficient access' should be determined from a technology-neutral point of view, and there should be no restrictions that would favor or disfavor a certain type of service offering."
  • Prevent funding recipients from cherry-picking specific, already-served locations. 
  • Exclude areas funded by other agencies. “To avoid duplication among federal efforts and protect the FCC's Connect America Fund investment, it is imperative that the RUS work with the FCC to identify those areas already receiving Universal Service Fund dollars and exclude those areas from pilot program funding.” 

The Broadband Connects America coalition also submitted comments:

  • USDA should evaluate rural household's "sufficient access" to broadband with metrics that go beyond mere speed. Furthermore, rural adequacy metrics should match urban adequacy standards.
  • USDA should design the e-connectivity pilot in a way that provides unique solutions for each unique rural area. Focusing on utility partnerships is a start, not a blanket solution. 
  • e-Connectivity should consider the effects of the rural digital divide on marginalized communities like tribal nations, communities of color, consumers with disabilities, the elderly, and low-income consumers.

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance submitted comments too, focusing on affordability. NDIA’s comments begin by commending RUS for raising the issue of affordability as a factor in defining the “sufficiency” of broadband access: “This is an important step in bringing some much-needed common sense to the national discussion of ‘bridging the rural digital divide’, which is too often dominated by the single issue of physical network deployment.”

NDIA points to data from the FCC and the Census Bureau suggesting that the median poverty rate of residents of the nation’s worst-connected rural counties is 16%-17%, with rates in some counties twice as high. This means the $65 per month or more being charged for basic broadband by most commercial Internet service providers is equivalent to 5%-6% or more of many rural households’ total incomes. Prices like these are “a hard barrier to meaningful broadband adoption by all lower-income consumers, no matter where they happen to live.”  NDIA says that RUS should consider setting an affordability benchmark for “sufficient access” that’s based on whether existing broadband costs exceed a reasonable percentage (and suggests 2.5%) of the average income of the poorer half of local households.

FCC Broadband Data Collection

While these new initiatives look for solutions, collecting data on where broadband is and where it isn’t remains a huge issue. 

FCC maps of wireless and broadband service coverage have been highly criticized, particularly for the inaccuracy in rural areas. The issue came up at the Senate Commerce Committee’s FCC oversight hearing back in August [See: FCC Oversight and Overlooks]. Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) said, "Your maps stink. Problem is the providers said 'your map is red.' But it ain’t even pink where I live.”

In August, the FCC announced it was receiving comments on the Form 477 system (the data used to create the broadband maps). The stated goals are to:

  • Improve the quality, accuracy, and usefulness of the data it collects on fixed and mobile voice and broadband service.
  • Examine how the FCC can reduce burdens on industry by eliminating unnecessary or onerous data filing requirements.

The FCC's inaccurate broadband maps made news when a Government Accountability Office released a report last week that concludes that the FCC’s data collection practices overstate broadband access on tribal lands. 

Because of the way the FCC measures data on broadband availability, the agency considers broadband to be “available” for an entire census block if a provider can serve even just one location in that census block. Obviously, this method leads to overstatements of service for specific locations like tribal lands. Additionally, the GAO noted, the FCC does not collect information on several factors—such as affordability, quality, and denials of service—that FCC and tribal stakeholders stated can affect the extent to which Americans living on tribal lands can access broadband services. 

This is a problem further still, as the FCC provides broadband funding for unserved areas based on its broadband data. Overstatements of access limit the FCC’s and tribal stakeholders’ abilities to target broadband funding to such areas. 

The GAO made three recommendations to FCC, to which the agency agreed:

  1. The Chairman of the FCC should develop and implement methods--such as a targeted data collection--for collecting and reporting accurate and complete data on broadband access specific to tribal lands.
  2. The Chairman of the FCC should develop a formal process to obtain tribal input on the accuracy of provider-submitted broadband data that includes outreach and technical assistance to help tribes participate in the process.
  3. The Chairman of the FCC should obtain feedback from tribal stakeholders and providers on the effectiveness of FCC's 2012 statement to providers on how to fulfill their tribal engagement requirements to determine whether FCC needs to clarify the agency's tribal engagement statement.


New initiatives aimed at tackling the rural broadband divide offer exciting new solutions and frameworks. The Broadband Connects America coalition and the RUS' e-Connectivity pilot program offer big-picture approaches to the divide. But it is obvious that better broadband data is one of the first things we all need if we want to close the rural broadband divide.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

September 17-21, 2018 Events

Sept 17 -- ConnectHomeUSA Summit, HUD

Sept 17 -- Clearing obstacles to America’s 5G wireless future: A conversation with FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, AEI

Sept 19 -- Innovative and Emerging Broadband Technologies: Providing Economical Alternatives for Rural Broadband Access, NTIA

Sept 20 -- The State of Play in 5G in the US, Politico

Sept 20-22 -- TPRC46: Research Conference on Communications, Information and Internet Policy

Sept 20 -- Technological Advisory Council, FCC

Sept 21 -- Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century, FTC

By Robbie McBeath.