The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened many divides in communities in the United States. The list includes the digital divide – the gap between those who have access to high-speed internet and those who do not. This digital divide is pronounced in communities of color.
While many people have successfully been able to rely on the internet during this time of crisis, too many people who are Latinx, Black, Indigenous, Asian and American Indian have been cut off completely. A significant number of these people are in rural communities where deploying broadband infrastructure is particularly challenging and costly. As a result, these underserved communities in rural areas are falling behind while the rest of the country pulls further ahead.
Closing this rural broadband gap will require a multifactor approach with policymakers and the private sector working together. Significantly, the Federal Communications Commission has a unique and straightforward opportunity before it right now that will help connect diverse communities.
Earlier this year, NCTA – The Internet and Television Association – petitioned the FCC to clarify its rules to ensure the cost of new utility poles are paid more fairly. In deploying broadband infrastructure, utility poles are used to hang wires and equipment used for internet services. The current system forces internet providers too often to pay the entire cost to replace poles in rural areas, resulting in a windfall to utility pole owners.
Since rural broadband projects need tens of thousands of poles or more, the result is dramatically increased costs and delays in building broadband networks. The current system raises costs by as much as 35 percent and adds months or even years to broadband projects. By failing to fairly divide up the costs, the current system is unjust. And it contributes to the injustice of unequal internet access for communities of color.
ALLvanza recently joined 17 other groups representing multicultural communities to ask the FCC to move forward on this issue as soon as possible. We are also calling on Congress to join us in requesting action from the FCC, because the stakes are high for rural communities of color. Altogether, nearly 20 million people do not have high-speed internet in their homes, nearly all of them outside urban and suburban settings.
Minority communities are disproportionately affected by this lack of access, as they account for about 10 million of the country’s rural population. A staggering 31 percent of Latinos and 22 percent of Black Americans do not have broadband access in their homes. For Latinos, that is nearly twice as high as the percentage of whites without broadband access.
There are about 990 majority Latino rural communities, spread across the Southwest, Southeast, Midwest and Northwest. These towns’ residents are mainly recent immigrants, farm laborers and others who desperately need the benefits that broadband internet brings. For example, the town of Chimayo, N.M., is more than 90 percent Latino. Yet barely 2 in 5 residents have broadband access.
Broadband access is the gateway to opportunity. In the 21st century economy, the internet gives entrepreneurs more options and bigger markets, the better for them to achieve their dreams. It gives families more options to educate their kids, which is the ladder to success. It lets sick people find more and better medical providers through telehealth services, which is important because rural areas have a major shortage of doctors.
Without broadband internet access, many rural communities will be left behind during an incredibly challenging time for America, especially for those being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. In some states, confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Latinos make up more than four times their share of the population. Nationally, coronavirus-related death rates for Black Americans are nearly two times greater than their share of the population. For the minority-owned small business community, Paycheck Protection Program loans have been harder to come by according to a recent Brookings report – leaving already vulnerable businesses even more cash-strapped.
The best way to solve this problem is to make it easier to expand broadband. The Federal Communications Commission can do exactly that by fixing the rules surrounding internet infrastructure. Our communities are counting on the FCC. Ending the digital divide and bringing broadband internet to rural areas is not just good policy, it is a matter of equality and justice.
Rosa Mendoza is the founder of ALLvanza, a nonprofit that advocates for the success of Latinxs, and other underserved communities, in our innovation- and technology-based society.
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