Broadband policy discussions are often reduced into how broadband should be deployed in rural areas, and why adoption is an ongoing issue among urban populations. While the technologies and strategies needed for success are fundamentally different, both require funding to improve. Separating funding opportunities into urban and rural is not necessarily the answer.
Prioritizing infrastructure in rural areas and digital adoption in urban centers will only address parts of a much more complex digital dilemma. Funding should not be arbitrarily locked behind rural and urban designations. Instead, it should be made available to those communities that need it the most for community leaders to identify the best connectivity strategies.
The most recent Broadband Deployment Report released by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC” or “Commission”) notes that 74% of people have access to at least two options for fixed broadband at speeds of 25/3 Mbps. Notably, the Commission does not assess whether these options for service are affordable, a primary obstacle to adoption. Assuming that a household has access to a connection, if the broadband plans associated with that connection are not affordable, it could be equivalent to having no connection at all.
The FCC also evaluated fixed broadband adoption rates between the years of 2015 and 2019. In urban core areas, 73% of homes adopted broadband at speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps. Evaluating the same benchmark speeds in rural core areas, only 65% of households adopted broadband. The numbers are even lower for Tribal lands where only 47% of households have reliable access to minimum broadband speeds.
While these numbers have improved year to year, there is still a long way to go to meet the ultimate goal of universal broadband access. Difficulty in deploying rural infrastructure often overshadows urban issues. Still, at least 13.9 million urban households live without broadband access, wired or wireless, more than triple the 4.5 million rural households that lack a broadband subscription.
When people think of urban communities they think of bustling city centers and well developed suburbs that are already well connected. However, there are often significant gaps in infrastructure that fail to connect low-income urban areas or new developed outlying metropolitan areas. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant Program is an example of an initiative that helps to support broadband infrastructure deployment in urban areas. These grants help build the last mile connections to new and existing housing developments that may not be easily accessible to providers, or have simply been overlooked. Without this type of investment, these communities would remain at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to distance learning, telehealth, and other activities that are required for meaningful participation in a digital society.
Similarly, in rural America, there is an assumption that broadband connections are not available, preventing rural households from being able to get online. However, income and affordability play a significant role.
Often the states with the lowest broadband adoption rates are ones with the lowest median income and a higher proportion of rural communities. Broadband infrastructure as a main barrier to broadband deployment is quickly diminishing as federal, state, and local governments are working diligently to ensure that their communities are able to access physical connections.
Increasingly, digital adoption issues are getting more attention. Pricing, access to devices, and digital literacy prevent millions of Americans from getting online. As more hard to reach communities are able to access infrastructure, they will contend with similar issues complicated by the reality that rural broadband service is frequently offered at a prohibitively high price to recoup the costs of deployment. Unfortunately, federal programs do not address adoption issues, only infrastructure development.
Broadband continues to remain a priority for local officials, as well as state and federal lawmakers. Funding for broadband deployment must evolve to meet the new challenges that communities face when working to connect their residents. Promoting infrastructure deployment in rural areas, while ignoring obstacles to adoption in communities of all geographies and sizes keeps the digital divide alive.