Groups Launch Broadband Connects America Coalition to End Rural Digital Divide
Today, Public Knowledge joined 17 other organizations (including the Benton Foundation) to form the Broadband Connects America coalition. The Coalition is comprised of a wide range of consumer, rural, and social justice organizations committed to closing the digital divide. Coinciding with today’s launch, Broadband Connects America released the Principles to Connect Rural America -- five principles to serve as a foundation for policymakers and advocates to promote policies that work to bring broadband to millions of rural Americans.
What is the rural digital divide and why does it matter?
Over 30 percent of rural Americans do not have access to broadband at home -- a staggering amount when compared to the four percent of urban Americans who can’t get access. The rural digital divide is even more troubling for rural Americans of color; a recent study by Free Press shows that 27 percent of people of color who live in rural America do not have access to the internet at home. And even when rural Americans do have access to broadband connections, the service is often unreliable.
Millions of hard-working Americans aren’t able to participate in and grow the digital economy, just as millions aren’t able to enjoy many of the conveniences of modern life. Too many American children are unable to adequately complete their homework. Closing the rural digital divide is imperative because without getting rural internet connections (quite literally) up-to-speed, Americans who live in these areas do not have access to digital services that most Americans rely on, whether it’s checking Doppler weather radar, applying for government programs, or accessing employment and educational opportunities.
That’s why we are coming together to form the Broadband Connects America coalition. We believe in a level playing field for all Americans everywhere, a field on which there are no obstacles to the websites, products, and services we all want and need.
The principles provide a roadmap for closing the digital divide.
The Principles to Connect Rural America serve as a foundation -- for policymakers and legislators across the country and both sides of the aisle -- to build on when crafting new solutions to close the rural digital divide. These principles focus on practical solutions to encourage build-out by broadband providers, address barriers like affordability, and ensure high-speed and reliable connections to the internet. The Broadband Connects America Coalition is comprised of representatives from industry, rural, and public interest organizations committed to coming together to advance the Principles to Connect Rural America and influence policies that will bring meaningful connections to millions of Americans.
Rural Americans shouldn’t be left behind.
Rural broadband should be as robust as the service offered in major cities. People who live in rural areas need the same high-quality internet connection that people in urban areas rely on every day. Different standards of adequacy for broadband determined simply by where you live creates an internet underclass of people unable to participate in the ever-growing digital economy. We want to ensure a level playing field for all Americans, urban and rural, so that no one faces obstacles to access the online sites, products, and services they want and need. The FCC has established a minimum threshold for broadband speeds at 25 Mbps/3 Mbps, but adequacy can be measured by a variety methods, including reliability, functionality, and pricing.
Restoring net neutrality is essential to closing the rural digital divide.
Rural Americans who do have access to broadband can often find that it’s spotty and unreliable. Without strong net neutrality protections, these problems will only get worse. Broadband providers are now allowed to block websites and applications and slow down overall web traffic. Small internet service providers (ISPs), like the ones that tend to serve rural communities, will also likely be charged higher prices by the largest ISPs (like AT&T and Comcast) to “interconnect”-- or connect the local network to the global internet. These practices will make rural broadband connections even less reliable than they already are.
Strong net neutrality protections are critical to ensuring a free market and a level playing field online so businesses in every city and town can reach customers anywhere in the world. In small towns and rural areas, high-speed internet access provides new economic opportunities for small local businesses to be part of the digital economy and connects local businesses to the global marketplace. Protecting rural consumers from unfair discrimination is crucial to the successful deployment of broadband to rural America.
Deployment should be focused on achieving tangible universal service to all rural Americans rather than allocated based on profit per population density.
All Americans need access to reliable high-speed broadband regardless of where they live. Data has shown that lack of profits, not lack of ability, is what has kept major broadband providers from deploying in rural areas. Regulatory schemes that continue to allow ISPs to dodge rural buildout based solely on profit-driven plans leave millions of Americans without broadband because their geographic location is too remote to generate large profits. Instead, policies to promote rural broadband deployment should ensure that all consumers in rural service areas are served, regardless of population density or physical terrain.
Rural broadband solutions that provide tax incentives and remove regulatory barriers are disconnected from the problem at hand: lack of profit margins for the major carriers. Policymakers must recognize that rural America is often serviced by small business ISPs and non-commercial providers such as cooperatives or municipal networks that do not benefit from tax incentives the same way the large carriers do. Further, there is no evidence that regulations targeted for repeal increase the cost of deployment in rural areas or discourage investment. Closing the rural digital divide requires a meaningful nexus between problem and proposed solution.
Funding should be simple and allocated directly to infrastructure needs, not directly to last-mile carriers.
The “last mile” refers to the portion of the telecommunications network that physically reaches the end-user's premises, and is almost always the most expensive part of any network. (And ‘mile’ is metaphorical: the actual length could be more or less than a mile.) Because this part of telecom networks is so expensive, resources intended to help rural Americans access broadband are disproportionately allocated to the carriers that build and maintain this “last mile” infrastructure rather than for programs that improve infrastructure overall.
We believe that rather than repeat the infrastructure funding program designed for the 20th century, new funding should take advantage of the ability to divide the supply chain into different components such as towers, fiber, and conduit, as well as services such as emergency 911 and packet routing. Modern internet protocol (IP) networks allow carriers to share facilities such as towers for wireless transmitters, fiber for backhaul, or even just plastic conduit to make pulling fiber cheap and easy.
Closing the rural digital divide will require a combination approach that reflects the complexity of the challenges of deploying broadband to rural America.
Rural America is comprised of a diverse group of sparsely-populated areas, each one unique in its physical terrain and constituent needs. Small towns in the deserts of Arizona have different obstacles to broadband deployment than mountainous villages in remote areas of Vermont or Appalachia. The strategy to deploy broadband to rural America should reflect the complexity of rural America itself: it’s not one homogeneous area, and there’s no silver bullet to closing the rural digital divide.
Closing the divide is going to require a technology-agnostic approach that addresses several adoption barriers, including access and affordability. Each combination approach should be crafted to address the unique challenges of the communities it aims to serve. A community-based combination approach can also benefit the bottom line. For example, wireless providers and community anchor institutions can help streamline deployment, cutting costs by utilizing institutions and infrastructure already embedded in communities.
The Federal Communications Commission is in the midst of developing a framework for transitioning traditional U.S. telecommunications networks and bringing them entirely into the 21st century. This transition to new networks capable of providing high-speed broadband to rural America will require the retirement of the legacy copper network that currently serves rural areas. And although the long-term goal is to achieve ubiquitous infrastructure that is capable of high-speed services, millions of rural Americans still rely on the copper network for everyday functions like basic telephony, credit card machines, and medical devices. During rural America’s transition to 21st century connectivity, the FCC has an obligation to protect consumers from harm. This obligation includes ensuring that 1) consumers have fair notice before legacy networks are retired, 2) replacement services are adequate for community needs, and 3) consumers are not forced to pay higher prices for similar levels of service.
Closing the rural digital divide won’t be easy and won’t happen overnight. But, the Principles to Connect Rural America provides a great roadmap to start. Learn more about the Broadband Connects America coalition and the Principles to Connect Rural America at broadbandconnectsamerica.com.
Daiquiri Ryan is a Policy Fellow at Public Knowledge