It’s Time for Congress to Act on Rural Broadband

I just read this fascinating profile of Senator Joe Manchin in a recent New Yorker (“recent,” as in, from June, but if you have ever subscribed to the New Yorker you understand that it publishes at a relentless pace, and you are doing pretty well if you are on an issue from June of this year) in which a high school teacher from rural West Virginia notes that he had students who took their 2020 AP exams in a McDonald’s parking lot because there is such limited access to broadband internet in that state.

Georgia is not that much different, nor is much of the rest of the rural United States. In fact, an estimated 20 million Americans still do not have internet in their homes.

The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that our lives  — and livelihoods — are largely dependent on the internet. Doctors appointments, virtual school, work, religious services, and even social engagements were able to happen for people who have reliable and fast internet access. People who lack that internet access missed more than a year’s worth of those same opportunities and necessities. Right now, there’s an historic opportunity for congressional leaders to capitalize on this opportunity to bring broadband to all and – finally – close the digital divide.

There are three main drivers of this digital divide: affordability, adoptability, and accessibility. The federal government’s affordability programs have helped but they simply do not finish bridging that divide: 44% of Americans who earn less than $30,000 a year do not have broadband at home according to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

We also need to fund programs that increase digital literacy training. In addition, the National Urban League’s Digital Equity Plan recommends a national office of Digital Equity to coordinate training and education programs so all Americans regardless of their background can learn to harness the internet.

Finally, we need to build on our current networks to expand broadband access to communities that currently lack any meaningful connectivity. Even though broadband coverage with multiple competing networks is available to the vast majority of Americans, 26% of rural Americans lack access to any broadband networks at all. It’s critical that Congress prioritize bringing broadband access to these communities.

We have an opportunity to get everyone in America connected to the internet, and the quickest way to permanently close the digital divide is to build on what works: prioritizing expanding access to communities that lack broadband access, and funding a permanent program that provides financial help to low-income households and improves adoption rates.

There is no doubt in my mind that in Georgia, there are students who had to get creative about how and where they took their AP exams, just as there were in West Virginia. States are working hard to try to solve this issue, but as rural broadband access is not unique to any one state or jurisdiction, it is clear that it is time for Congress to act.


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