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Digital Divide: the Geography Factor

This article was published on:
January 26, 2022

It might surprise you to learn that the small towns, tribal lands, and remote, far-flung addresses of rural America aren’t the only areas with digitally underserved households. Yes, many countryside dwellers are still waiting for reliable high-speed internet connections to reach them. However, in our well-connected cities, you can find whole neighborhoods where the percentage of residents living without broadband is shockingly high. In our digital divide blog post last month we talked about the role affordability plays in the US digital divide, but we only scratched the surface of another significant factor: location.Digital Divide - location matters 

Urban Digital Deserts
The number of people living without wireless or in-home broadband services is three times higher in urban areas than rural, according to a blog by the Brookings Institution.

In some big cities, costs can vary tremendously from one block to the next. The reason? Lack of consistent investment by internet carriers. While broadband corporations moved quickly into affluent neighborhoods, they held back from investing in poorer sections. Digital redlining created internet deserts where broadband service options are extremely limited and pricing isn’t competitive. Even when low-cost or government subsidized internet programs do become available, community members can still be hindered by a lack of devices and digital skillsets.

Out of frustration, city residents are taking things into their own hands. In Detroit, Michigan, for example, members of the Equitable Internet Initiative built their own wireless network. Their goal: to bring affordable access and digital training opportunities to underserved communities—predominantly communities of color—in the Detroit metro area. In Chicago’s South Side, another nonprofit group raised funds to set up mobile Wi-Fi hotspots to support independent sellers at neighborhood farmers markets. They also provided hotspots to students who didn’t have internet access at home.

New legislation promises to help. The Infrastructure Bill includes several “broadband affordability” initiatives to protect digital equity. Among other things, it will extend the existing Emergency Broadband Benefit and create rules designed to put an end to digital redlining and other discriminatory practices.

The Digital Divide in Rural America
The Infrastructure Bill should make a big impact on rural America too. It includes $1 billion to enable open access middle mile broadband infrastructure. These dollars will make it more feasible for providers to build connections from existing backbones to far-flung connection points (at a small town library, for example). Once a connection is made, a local high-performance broadband network can fan out to households and businesses in the surrounding area. According to the FCC’s 2021 broadband report, about 17% of American in rural areas and tribal lands still lack access to a fixed 25/3 Mbps broadband service. Keep in mind that today’s carriers offer high-speed broadband service that exceed 100 Mbps, so the percentage of rural Americans lacking high-speed internet access comparable to city dwellers would be even higher.)

The benefits of connecting rural communities go beyond the direct personal impacts to those currently living with slow, spotty, or non-existent internet service. It is fundamental to supporting rural industry, connecting critical services, and driving prosperity in vast areas outside US metros.

Ending Digital Poverty
In our modern tech-driven era, no one should be left in digital poverty. The internet is essential to job searches, schoolwork, health and government benefits access, social connections and more. Equitable internet access across all communities will allow people to thrive, regardless of their race, economic status, or physical address.

Our mission is not simply to bridge, but end the digital divide. That’s why Mobile Citizen offers affordable pricing on mobile internet devices and unlimited data plans exclusively to schools, libraries, nonprofits, and social welfare agencies nationwide. To learn more, contact our experts in the Mobile Citizen Customer Service Center at 877-216-9603.