Over the past decade, governments at all levels have made big investments to help close the digital divide, especially in terms of bringing broadband and related services to rural areas. This work makes sense as success in today’s economy requires full access to the latest communication technologies. A number of recent news articles note that, while progress has been made, rural areas remain far behind in both access to and use of the latest broadband tools and technologies. Some of the remaining problems result from the higher costs of deploying broadband to rural areas or due to existing laws and rules that impede the roll-out. For example, in North Carolina, state laws are blocking the expansion of successful municipal wireless networks to neighboring communities.
Even more worrisome: there are indicators that take-up of broadband services in rural America—even in locations with high-quality service—greatly lags that of other regions. A recent Governing article notes that nearly half of rural residents with access to high speed internet service have not signed up for service. Senior citizens make up a large share of non-adopters, but 49% of low income rural households also lack access. A related survey of rural and urban consumers (from Connected Nation) found that 39% of current non-adopters would purchase broadband at a lower price point. This suggests that cost, not access, may be the biggest issue in expanding rural broadband access. So, as we search for technological fixes, we should also be addressing the cost of services as well.
The good news is that many folks seem to share these concerns about both cost and access. The Federal Communications Commission recently closed the application period for the first investments from its Connect America Fund. This Rural Broadband Experiments initiative generated lots of interest. Over 181 applicants (with projects valued at nearly $885 million) have applied for the $100 million in new funding. Connect America and related efforts must be continued to ensure that broadband access—essential infrastructure in today’s economy—is available for all rural residents, businesses, and communities.