Exploring the digital divide in rural and urban communities
By Adam Polaski
In Tabor, Iowa, the self-proclaimed “small town you’ve been looking for,” getting connected to the community has never been too difficult. The town, which measures 1.3 square miles and is home to fewer than 1,000 people, features four churches, only two restaurants and a strong sense of community togetherness. But before 2008, getting connected to anywhere outside of Tabor wasn’t the easiest task. That’s because the town had poor Internet access with few options for providers—the fastest available service was a digital subscriber line, or DSL, from the privately-owned Iowa Telecom service.
“With DSL, the speed varies,” Ross Silcock, a member of the Tabor City Council, explained. “They sell it as ‘high-speed Internet,’ and I think they mean ‘high-speed compared to dial-up,’ because it’s not high-speed Internet. It was very variable, and there were times when it would slow down and virtually stop.”
Perhaps because the town’s population was so small and thus represented a rather low potential profit, Iowa Telecom was unwilling to upgrade the technology in Tabor. Broadband, or a fast connection to the Internet that’s always on, simply didn’t exist in the town.
Mapping the Disparity
The residents in Tabor weren’t alone in their struggles to connect to broadband. Even in 2011, when you’re considered behind the times if you can’t check your Facebook from your cell phone, basic, reliable Internet access remains out of reach for many communities in the United States.
The National Broadband Map, a project of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, charts broadband availability throughout the country, and it demonstrates the extent of the issue. Released in February, the map, which is searchable and interactive to show which Internet services are available where, is an easy way to see where holes exist in American broadband coverage.
Some of those holes are troublingly large—wide expanses of the mountain west, southwest and inland northwest are essentially broadband deserts. Overall, 5 percent of Americans can’t access Internet at speeds efficient enough to allow for basic web functions, including downloading images, sending email, browsing the Internet and video conferencing. An additional 5 to 7 percent of Americans have substandard broadband service, allowing them to access the Internet, but at comparatively slow speeds and with unreliable connections.
“It was pretty shocking when they found out exactly how many people couldn’t really use the Internet,” Molly McHugh, contributor to tech blog Digital Trends, said. “As you can see from looking at the map, which is being updated regularly—the project is ongoing—it’s pretty blank in the middle of the United States. There’s a huge gap in how many people can access high-speed Internet.”
The Rural Population Left Behind
An important trend seen in the map—and a significant explanation for some of that gap—is that there is greater access to broadband in urban areas than there is in rural areas. In fact, about 10 percent more people in urban areas have access to fast broadband when compared with people in rural areas.
Brian Depew is the director of rural organizing & outreach programming at the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb. He argues that Internet access is fundamentally necessary to strengthen the infrastructure of rural communities, which without it could be left behind.
“Rural broadband speeds still tend to lag behind urban speeds, and costs tend to be higher because there’s less competition and the technology that serves rural areas is more expensive per person,” he said. “Oftentimes, it means they’re paying more for service that’s not as fast as they have in urban areas.”
The map was funded by the Obama administration’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which afforded $7.2 billion in stimulus funds to states to increase their broadband access in rural areas. It’s part of the National Broadband Plan, which began in 2009 with one of its most general goals: According to its website, “Every American should have affordable access to robust broadband service and the means and skills to subscribe if they so choose.” Despite some issues, including inconsistent data collection methods that may have resulted in over- or under-reporting of the actual amount of broadband coverage, the map was one of the most important first steps in asserting evidence that change is necessary.
An Essential Resource
Obama’s commitment to greater web connectivity brings up the increasingly supported perspective that the Internet is no longer an extraneous luxury. Advocacy groups cite a long list of reasons that people need to be online. S. Derek Turner is the research director of Free Press, a media reform group based out of Washington, D.C., that works as a strong proponent of universal Internet access. “It’s an essential infrastructure,” Turner said. “It’s just as important as energy or water or electricity.”
As more news sources migrate to cyberspace and become exclusively web-based, it’s clear that we need the Internet to ensure that we’re receiving information and maintaining a well-educated citizenry.
“People are connected to the Internet 24/7, with their phones in their pockets and their computers at work and their computers at home,” Turner said. “It’s really the method that we’re getting our information about the world, our local communities.”
Reliable Internet access is also essential for an individual’s financial stability. The search for employment now begins online, and many job responsibilities in a variety of career fields demand virtual attention. Thinking more broadly, areas with poor Internet connections are less inviting as appropriate climates for new businesses or centers of employment.
Depew elaborated, “From an economic development perspective, more and more commerce happens online. More people are able to work remotely, but you have to be able to have quality broadband. Your Internet connection can’t be going up and down all morning if you’re going to be effectively making your job on your computer.”
Experts say web access also extends the opportunity to participate more fully in democracy, providing the chance to interact with elected officials, other public figures and government agencies. For the people in rural areas of the United States without online access, their voice stands an even smaller chance of being heard.
“That’s not good for rural people, but it’s also not good for the country as a whole,” Depew said. “In order to be fully engaged citizens and to have a healthy democracy, we need everyone to have access to information about what’s going on in our government, have access to our elected officials.”
The City of Tabor understood the advantages of consistently reliable Internet. So after years of feeling like victims of the digital divide, Ross Silcock and the other city council members approved the implementation of a new, city-wide Wi-Fi system—community-supported broadband. They hired a small Internet provider, Efanz, to introduce broadband in the town and made it a municipal service—residents sign on as a subscriber, and the city partly subsidizes their Internet, similar to how electricity and sewage services operate. The result, Silcock said, is faster, less expensive service with very few complaints from residents.
Tabor speaks to the success that can be derived from independent, community-supported networks that work outside of a strictly business-driven system.
Christopher Mitchell, who works for the New Rules Project of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, is a strong advocate for publicly owned broadband networks. Models similar to that of Tabor haven’t gained much popularity yet, but according to Mitchell’s research, more than 50 towns and cities in the United States boast their own advanced fiber-to-the-home networks.
“We want broadband to cease being viewed as a business venture and start being viewed as an infrastructure,” Mitchell said, explaining that private Internet companies don’t stand to profit much by developing rural areas, which is why many small towns are neglected.
“Our interest in community broadband focuses on networks that actually care about the community, that put the community needs first, and the goal of the network is often to break even financially,” he said. “Really, the goal is more about economic development, about education, and so that’s sort of the whole reason for community broadband: to say that the broadband network is an infrastructure and needs to put community needs first.”
Fixing the Digital Divide
Communities like Tabor are partly responsible for reducing the size of the disparity in Internet access with regard to urban and rural areas of the country. And the National Broadband Map is continually reflecting increases in coverage, showing that one of the most basic issues in the wider problem of affordable Internet access—that is, the fundamental capability to connect to broadband—is seeing improvements.
Turner said the coverage problem itself could be corrected with relative ease. “We certainly do have a digital divide,” he said. “It’s what I like to call the ‘Big Little Problem,’ and what I mean by that is that it’s big in terms of the amount of investment it’s going to take to overcome, but it’s little in terms of the relative size to the rest of the country.” Other digital divides, he said, like trends seen along socioeconomic lines or racial and ethnic lines, will be more challenging to overcome.
But that’s why the National Broadband Plan is an overall positive program: Acknowledging that these problems exist is the first step in working toward real change. The success of municipally-owned broadband networks and the National Broadband Plan’s push for greater coverage demonstrate that perhaps it’s time to explore what the public sector can do to fulfill the universal need for Internet access.
For Depew, the issue he foresees is how the government will take its next steps toward expansion.
“Just like any other utility, once it becomes a critical utility, we expect that it’s an appropriate role for government,” he said. “Our water system, our electricity system are often government utilities, and there’s no reason broadband couldn’t be as well. … At the end of the day, we need federal investment in order to make this happen.”
Adam Polaski is a junior journalism major who is on the phone with Apogee support as you read this. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.