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Rural Internet Access: How To Get Broadband Across America

A child attends an online class at a learning hub inside the Crenshaw Family YMCA during the pandemic in February in Los Angeles, California. The learning hub program provides structured distance education resources including free WiFi, electricity, staff support, academic tutoring, and recreation activities to provide a safe environment to support low income and minority communities. (PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)
A child attends an online class at a learning hub inside the Crenshaw Family YMCA during the pandemic in February in Los Angeles, California. The learning hub program provides structured distance education resources including free WiFi, electricity, staff support, academic tutoring, and recreation activities to provide a safe environment to support low income and minority communities. (PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

The internet is essential for modern life. Yet millions of Americans who live rural areas don’t have access to it. Does the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan have what will it take to get broadband to the hardest to reach places?


Cathy Trimble, principal of the Francis Marion School in Alabama, a K-12 school with 635 students. (@ctrim41522)

Dr. Nicol Turner Lee, senior fellow in governance studies and director for the Center of Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. Author of the forthcoming book “Digitally Invisible.” (@drturnerlee)

Keith Gabbard, CEO of the Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative (P.R.T.C.), which provides high-speed internet in Jackson and Owsley County, Kentucky. (@keith_gabbard)

Also Featured

Liz Shaw, music teacher in Meigs County, Ohio.

Chuck Caudill, judge in Lee County, Kentucky.

Interview Highlights

How many Americans are lacking access to the internet?

Nicol Turner Lee: ”We don’t know. But that’s part of the problem. You know, the Federal Communications Commission, who’s responsible for the oversight of advanced communications system, has actually put out statistics as to how many people are not connected to the internet. And over the course of the pandemic, for example, they put out statistics suggesting that we’ve actually gotten better, because we used to have about 18 million people disconnected. And maybe right now we have about 14 million. But there are other numbers that are out there. Groups like Microsoft, BroadbandNow have actually suggested that this is undercounted.

“And part of the reason that is, is because we do not have a national broadband map that allows us to collect the type of user data that will be both precise, as well as accurate, in determining not just how a family is connected, but, you know, what is connecting them. … We don’t know how many people are using what type of technology. And that’s just simply because oftentimes this is voluntarily reported data. So we do need to do a better job of ensuring that we have this data first, because without it, it’s really going to implode … some of the future plans to accelerate broadband deployment.”

What would you say is actually preventing us from having that basic baseline of a national map?

Nicol Turner Lee: “I think we’ve had several attempts. I mean, back in the mid-2000s, in preparation for my book, I was going through some documents that I’ve written in testimony I’ve given. And I saw the same conversation happening in 2015. I think the challenge is, is that the digital divide has never been seen as core to the nation’s assets, as water, electricity and other important concerns when it comes to social services, government benefits and even policing. And when we begin to think about what this pandemic did to really highlight and amplify that being disconnected mattered.

“It mattered when you could not go to the store, you couldn’t go to school, or work or your doctor’s office, that now we’re actually seeing a position in a different way. And I think one thing I would like to point out to listeners, this is in some way no fault to companies who’ve made certain business decisions. To government, who has had some lack of oversight of this, to individuals who in many respects are not adopting broadband. This environment has come through a very light touch regulatory approach where private sector investment has been the main way that we’ve actually seen these networks grow.

“Now, I think what’s happening is it’s not just about the ISPs, the Comcast and the Verizon’s of the world. We now have Facebook and Apple and other companies that have been added to this digital ecosystem, Amazon. And so this conversation that we’re having today is very much an issue around where is broadband being deployed. But it’s also an issue of how is broadband being leveraged to become the new economic driver for not just the United States but other countries?”

There has been vast amounts of federal spending trying to get people connected to the internet. And yet we haven’t done it. Where’s all that money gone? 

Nicol Turner Lee: “Well, see, that’s the problem. I mean, let’s just talk about rural broadband infrastructure for a minute. There are two to three different agencies that are responsible for this. And that money has a very burdensome process for small providers to even get through it, to get the money that they need to actually turn on these connections. In my research, I went to Nebraska and in the area of Nebraska, you have, you know, small broadband companies that just want to wire cattle farms. Or there was one guy that said, I just want to wire my community with wireless and I’ve leased my house, I’ve leased my car, I’ve taken loans on this. But everything is probably financed except my wife, because I just want to make sure my community of 500 people have access.

“And he could not present himself to the Rural Utility Service or Department of Agriculture to get this money. So part of what we’re going to see going forward is we not only need to have the money available, we not only need to realize that this money is just a down payment. It’s going to require the cooperation of the public sector, the private sector, civil society organizations, philanthropic organizations. But we also need to have [it] centralized somewhere. And in my experience doing this for 20, 30 years, there’s been no home for this. The FCC, who has taken this on, the Federal Communications Commission. They have oversight of a variety of functions.

“Congressman Clyburn is basically suggesting that we create an agency that is responsible for broadband development, that can look at these moneys in ways that sort of take all of the Post-it notes and frame them neatly. So we have some metrics and goals. And I think, you know, to your point, this money has been out there for quite some time. But we need to, again, consider where is it going. And with the absence of a map, do we even know the bang on our dollar when it comes to some of the most impoverished communities, some of the most disconnected communities and some communities, again, like tribal lands, where there are other challenges that need to be addressed to bring broadband even onto those lands. So I think you’re going in the right direction, and I think so are your listeners. We’ve got to come together and solve this.”

On what’s next in the push for broadband access

Nicol Turner Lee: “I testified for many hours yesterday before the Ways and Means Committee on Infrastructure, and it’s becoming very apparent that broadband is a critical infrastructure asset like our water, electricity and energy system. So I think we need to just continue to keep that top of mind. I think the other thing that we need to do is, and this is where I have written about this, for those who are interested, around these tech New Deal, which is a New Deal-era type of approach to these programs.

“We do need to have a coordinated response to infrastructure deployment, adoption and use, and we need to have workforce opportunities in the building of this infrastructure. So I think that’s another thing. And I think with the last thing, as the Biden administration moves forward, when he talks about complementary infrastructure like soft infrastructure. No child should ever be left offline again. And we need to make sure that not only we build these roads that are internet enabled, but people have the tools to get on it.”

From The Reading List

USA Today: “Broadband for all: Inside President Biden’s $100 billion plan to improve internet access” — “The problems with U.S. broadband networks have been obvious for years. Service costs more than in many other rich nations, it still doesn’t reach tens of millions of Americans and the companies that provide it don’t face much competition.”

Philadelphia Inquirer: “Biden wants local governments to provide broadband internet. Could they compete with Comcast and Verizon?” — “The rural borough of Kutztown couldn’t convince companies to bring faster internet to its community. So the town, about 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia, built its own broadband network.”

Los Angeles Times: “Biden’s broadband plan is bold. But the economic payoff is unclear” — “President Biden is betting $100 billion he can deliver a lifeline to rural America, and a boost to the economy overall, by making high-speed internet available to all Americans.”

Bloomberg: “Broadband’s Have-Nots Test Biden Plan for Rural Internet Rollout” — “Federal maps show R. Clay Jackson’s beef cattle farm in rural Madison County, Virginia, is awash in broadband — a designation that likely rules it out of President Joe Biden’s push to connect all Americans to fast internet service.”

Journalists Resource: “Rural broadband in the time of coronavirus” — ”

Starr Gilmartin, 63, lives with her husband in Trenton, Maine. She’s a social worker in this rural town of about 1,500 near Bar Harbor. Gilmartin uses telehealth technology to help psychiatrists evaluate their patients.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.