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Why Rural Communities of Color Are Left Behind: A Call for Intersectional Demographic Broadband Data

I spent many weekends and summers at my grandmother’s house, a humble home down a long, dirt road outside of the town of Hazlehurst, Georgia. As a teenager and undergraduate student, a time when many of us are far too social, I knew a visit to my grandmother’s house meant an unwanted digital detox. Instead, I enjoyed the tranquility of sitting on the porch as mosquitoes buzzed by or I accompanied my grandmother in the living room as she watched reruns of Bonanza. I found other things to do with my time and not because I enjoyed being disconnected; it was because AT&T’s (during some of those years it was Cingular Wireless) cell reception was non-existent. In 2018, I now have one or two bars that sometimes allow me to make a call or text to a friend when I’m visiting; however, full access to the internet solely with my wireless connection is just not possible.

Several factors impact rural communities’ ability to access the internet, including the deployment of broadband infrastructure as well as affordability of the service. Recently, PK teamed up with several organizations to launch Broadband Connects America in order to address this very issue. According to the Federal Communications Commission, approximately 31 percent of rural Americans do not have access to high-speed, reliable internet.

Let’s pause right here.

Rural Americans.

Perhaps the lack of diverse representation in the rural popular culture I watched with my grandmother, such as shows like Bonanza and Gunsmoke are to blame: Too many people often equate the identity of rural America as white America. This is simply not an accurate depiction: 15 percent of rural Americans are people of color. Data shows that in some states there are even double and triple that number of people of color who live in rural areas.

When I think of rural America I think of my hometown of Tifton, Georgia. I think of my grandmother’s town. I think of rural America as Black, Latinx, and Indigenous. Our failure to acknowledge this diversity has the potential to create serious gaps in our policy solutions which leaves people of color in rural communities behind, specifically as it relates to broadband access. Evidence shows that we have already left them behind.

Free Press Study on Systemic Racism and Internet Adoption

A 2016 study by Free Press took an in-depth look at why digital divide disparities exist for people of color in rural communities. One factor is affordability. There is a deepening economic inequality that exists in this country along racial lines. More specifically, as highlighted in our Rural Broadband and Racial Justice Fact Sheet, rates of poverty for communities of color in rural areas are greater than that of white rural Americans. For example, 27.2 percent Black Americans in rural areas live in poverty compared to that of 11.8 percent of white Americans.

However, the high price of broadband is not the only issue; it is also how the price of broadband is determined. According to Free Press:

People of color on average have fewer available ISPs and are more likely to live in a monopoly area, this lower level of service and competition could lead to higher prices – both initially and after any promotional prices have expired. Higher prices depress demand in these areas, and ultimately contribute to gaps in broadband adoption.

Thus, it is evident that there are structural discriminatory policies in place that impact rural communities of color and their ability to fully participate online.

This systemic discrimination in broadband deployment has varied implications for one’s employment, education, and even access to healthcare. Just last month the Washington Post reported that more than 4300 people were dropped from Medicaid in Arkansas because they did not meet the program’s new requirements. The state now requires “able-bodied adults must go online every month and report their hours of work or other community engagement.” In a state with a high percentage of people who live in rural areas, like Arkansas, residents will lose insurance if they cannot access the internet to report and comply. The lack of access to broadband is literally impacting one’s ability to lead a healthy life.

Proposed Solution: Demographic Data Collection

This will not be a simple issue to resolve. It is important to recall our second “Broadband Connects America” principle: Closing the rural digital divide requires a combination of approaches that reflect the complexity of the deployment of broadband in rural communities.

In order to address this complex issue, we must have access to more data. Under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Federal Communications Commission is required to report whether telecommunications capability “is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion,” and to take “immediate action” if it is not. Unfortunately, the FCC does not currently collect demographic data for the broadband deployment report. The FCC should collect and report more detailed data, including race, ethnicity, income, and education-level in its annual Broadband Deployment Report in order to truly have an accurate picture about which communities do not have access to high-quality telecommunications service.

Research already shows that existing disparities related to broadband access are not race-neutral. Logically, that means that the analysis of these disparities should also not be race-neutral. Demographic data on broadband deployment is a win-win and will help industry, policy makers, public interest groups, and civil rights organizations create policy solutions that address the digital divide among varied racial groups in rural communities. The notion that the lack of broadband access in rural communities is a racial justice issue is not a radical one and is supported by thorough research. If the FCC fails to recognize this, its data points will continue to leave people of color on the wrong side of the digital divide.

~Alisa Valentin
An alumna of Howard University Cathy Hughes School of Communications

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