Is Rural Broadband Really So Urgent?

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

“It’s not that we don’t care about rural communities, but from our perspective a really important component is helping folks who don’t have enough money to pay for broadband to get that money to pay for broadband,” Cheryl Leanza, co-chair of the Leadership Conference Media and Telecommunications Task Force, told The Root.

“There are a lot of reasons why people don’t have broadband in their homes,” Leanza continued. “But if you look at the statistics, it turns out that 30 percent of Americans have access to broadband infrastructure but don’t subscribe, while only 5 percent of Americans don’t have a wire at their house. And yet, we have $4.5 billion going annually to this tiny 5 percent deployment problem, and only $1.2 billion goes to a problem which is suffered by a lot more people.”

Conflicting Reports?

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.