Is Rural Broadband Really So Urgent?

The FCC says expanding Internet infrastructure aids the "have-nots." Civil rights groups disagree.

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The amount of money spent on expanding broadband infrastructure versus making it affordable would seem to contradict the FCC's own research, conducted in recent years as they've embarked on creating a national broadband policy. A 2010 FCC survey (pdf) found that African Americans and Latinos trail behind other races in broadband access, and examined the challenges of Americans who do not use the service. The study concluded that cost led the way at 36 percent, followed, at 22 percent, by a lack of digital literacy.

Other studies, however, netted different results. A 2010 report by Brilliant Corners Research & Strategies on the least plugged-in demographic groups found that the single biggest reason African Americans and Latinos didn't subscribe to broadband was that they didn't think the Internet was relevant to their lives, followed by a lack of access to computers. A 2010 Commerce Department analysis (pdf) similarly found that most Americans without broadband at home didn't subscribe because they saw no value in it (38 percent), with the expensive cost coming in second (26 percent).

Leanza points out that although results vary, cost is always among the top factors. "It's one of those things where, if you read enough of these studies, it's hard to say definitively that it's not about cost," she said. "Usually people have multiple reasons for why they don't have broadband. One, they don't think it's relevant, and then, two, they don't have the money. So if they had [enough] literacy education to [make them] feel like they would want the service, then cost might become more of a barrier. It's a chicken-or-the-egg situation."

A Matter of Priorities

Meanwhile, the Obama administration often frames its focus on broadband expansion as something that will benefit low-income communities. "Many rural communities have lower incomes, higher poverty rates, worse health outcomes and lower educational attainment than urban and suburban areas," stressed an August White House report on economic security in rural America, which highlighted broadband expansion as a way to combat such challenges.

Leanza offers several explanations for the FCC's concern with getting wires to the last few unconnected Americans. One major factor is politics. "There is the influence of rural and remote senators who take a strong role in this policy," she said, referring to the work of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens and Hawaii Sen. Dan Inouye in leading the Senate Commerce Committee, vigilantly ensuring more infrastructure for rural Americans. "There are legitimate reasons why rural Americans need the same infrastructure as everybody else. But that program is just very strongly embedded in communication policy."

And it's perhaps no coincidence, said Leanza, that rural broadband expansion doesn't have the same "handout" political overtones that often rise up when politicians talk about helping low-income people. Finally, although in both cases the money goes directly to the phone companies, they benefit more financially from infrastructure expansion. "With Lifeline they have to market to low-income people, keep track of eligibility and do other things that make it less convenient for them," said Leanza. "They're often trying to get some of the administrative burdens of Lifeline off their plate, while they're very strongly in support of infrastructure money."

What's Next

For all the organizing to put more funding toward Lifeline, there's one glaring problem with the program itself -- currently you can only use it to buy telephone service, not high-speed Internet. The FCC has stated its intention to modernize the program, but change has been slow.

The promising news is that the commission will hold another regulatory proceeding by the end of the year, specifically about improving Lifeline. "We're still organizing because one of the top priorities is making sure that the program is fully switched over to high-speed Internet," she said. "The government says it's trying to increase broadband adoption, and the one program we have that might help low-income people who really need it doesn't apply to high-speed Internet."