03: In the Sticks
Let’s talk about those recent Biden broadband promises. Combined with discounts offered by the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) passed in last year’s infrastructure bill, eligible households would ostensibly pay nothing for 100 mbps speeds — capable of having a family of four stream video and, generally, work or study from home.
From California to Georgia, rural educators have told me that students were held back by home internet that simply wasn’t good enough to stream online classes for an entire family. Even when institutions have provided their students with mobile hotspots, they’ve been disappointed by service that is often ineffective in rural areas.
“It’s a weak signal that you can maybe call 911 with, but not anything that you can put computers on for two or three students in a household,” says Allen Fort, the superintendent of Taliaferro County, one of Georgia’s poorest and most remote counties.
So will the White House’s recent deal help rural communities?
Some, experts say. But, overall, it’s poor, remote communities that are most likely to be left out of the administration’s internet largesse.
That’s because the 20% of the U.S. population not covered by these major providers has significant cross-over with the roughly 20% of Americans that live in rural areas.
“It’s more expensive to serve rural, less dense areas,” says Jennifer Harris, the state program director for Texas for the national internet-focused nonprofit Connected Nation. “If that provider had a $30 plan, and practically everyone qualifies for it, they can’t run a business on just $30 a month per customer.”
The ACP will likely find success in markets — urban, rural or suburban — with a more financially diverse mix of customers to draw from. “They have some customers paying the full price, and who may even want to pay more for gig speed, to offset that lower price,” Harris says.
Some rural communities are getting increased access to high speed internet through other programs, like the USDA ReConnect grant. The BEAD program, also approved in last year’s infrastructure bill, will hand states even more for expanding broadband, although those federal funds likely won’t be released until 2023.
Still, many rural communities hoping to be part of Biden’s recent efforts to expand affordable internet are likely to be disappointed. More work has to be done before the digital divide can be bridged for good.