When good is the enemy of great: Rural broadband in a time of COVID
With the global onset of COVID-19, broadband access has never been more vital to our economies, democracies, and social well-being. The pandemic, however, painfully demonstrated the extent to which people in the United States are un- and under-connected. At least 42 million Americans lack access to broadband because of infrastructure availability, while upwards of 162 million lack access to the Internet at broadband speeds. Tens of millions lack access to broadband because of cost and affordability. This presentation will focus on the rural-urban digital divide in the United States, pointing out its endemic features, and identifying areas of policy failure. Indeed, the failure to correct the rural-urban digital divide, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, is not one of technology, but rather of markets, politics and policy. In short, the political economy of broadband stands in the way of universal connectivity. I argue that rural broadband policy is defined by the “politics of good enough” and that this politics serves the interests of major telecommunications providers. To contrast these critiques, the presentation will also highlight community models of broadband deployment, ranging from municipal broadband to co-operative systems, which will exemplify how communities are connecting themselves in the wake of market failure. The presentation concludes with a prescriptive set of requirements and responsibilities for what will hopefully be a new administration.
Christopher Ali is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. His current research focuses on the rural-urban digital divide, telecommunications and broadband policy, and broadband access during COVID-19. He is the author of the forthcoming book Farm Fresh Broadband: The Future of Rural Connectivity (MIT Press, 2021) and multiple high-ranking journal articles and book chapters. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Hill, Columbia Journalism Review, and The Conversation. He is also the author of Media Localism: The Policies of Place (University of Illinois Press, 2017), and is currently a Faculty Fellow with the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society and a Knight News Innovation Fellow with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Previously he has held fellowships with the World Economic Forum, the Center for Advanced Study in Global Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, and Fribourg University in Switzerland.