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Why the federal government needs to step up efforts to close the rural broadband divide

Executive Summary

The Infrastructure Investment Bill and American Jobs Act (IIJA), passed in 2021, dedicates $65 billion for broadband funding and activities that close the digital divide. The monies are primarily being provided to states, localities and tribal communities who will determine how to allocate funding locally around the IIJA’s aspirational statutory goals. However, widespread data on where broadband assets exist throughout the U.S. are not widely available, leaving many states to creatively justify their use of federal funding. Without accurate depictions and data on how residents in rural, urban, and tribal lands are adversely impacted by the lack of available and sufficient high-speed broadband, certain populations will be left without sufficient online connectivity and remain on the wrong side of digital opportunities, particularly those populations already impacted by a range of historic and systemic inequalities throughout America’s rural South and Black Belt regions.


From May to June 2022, the Brookings Institution Center for Technology Innovation (CTI) contracted IPSOS Public Affairs (“IPSOS”) to poll 1,543 adults in the U.S. residing in the rural South about their access, use, and adoption of the internet and if they had broadband available to them on a regular basis. The result was a KnowledgePanel that drives CTI’s inaugural Rural Broadband Equity Project (RBEP) and informs relevant research for four papers that share the empirical findings. This first paper details the research background methodology and demographics of the Rural Broadband Equity Project, while further exploring who the rural respondents we interviewed believe is responsible for providing internet to their communities. Generally, lower-income rural residents expect the federal government to intervene and incentivize private companies to accelerate broadband deployment, and they are looking to their states and localities to embolden community-based organizations and other anchor institutions to assist in their endeavors. Given the urgency and magnitude of the recent IIJA investments, states and localities must not only effectively narrow digital disparities that impede on universal broadband in rural areas but also address the broader economic and social vulnerabilities of these residents. In our study, we find that people from historically disadvantaged communities, especially Black and Hispanic populations that lack internet access, are subjected to consistent and perpetual inequalities. Most notably, poverty and the restriction of opportunities in education, employment, health care, entrepreneurship and more are prohibiting their access to improved quality of life. Being subjected to the digital divide has added to the existing inequalities of some rural residents, making it imperative that states, localities, and tribal lands ensure that the goals of the IIJA serve the least connected communities first. Without such diligence, the U.S. will continue to leave millions of Americans disconnected, especially those already restricted in their economic and social mobilities.


Source: Brookings (2022). Why the federal government needs to step up efforts to close the rural broadband divide.