Reeve Jacobus, MPP Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives
Whether dealing with incarceration, health, or suicide rates, policy prescriptions that solve the problems of urban Americans aren’t often the same ones that will serve rural Americans best. This is especially evident when it comes to internet access across the country. While cities around the U.S. are implementing free and fast municipal broadband, many rural areas are lagging behind in implementing widespread access to serviceable internet.
Eleven percent of Americans didn’t use the internet in 2018; that number increases to 22 percent in rural communities. While the federal government can take action to expand broadband access around the county, states can also implement policies to close the rural-urban digital divide and improve the lives of millions of Americans.
Why is Internet Access Important?
As the American economy continues to modernize, rural Americans are often left behind by unreliable or nonexistent internet access. One in four rural residents is missing out on the diverse benefits that come with consistent access to the internet. Rural broadband can help bring rural areas into the global economy, support higher earnings and employment growth, and allow rural Americans to keep their jobs through telecommuting. Rural counties that have reliable internet access also see benefits in areas besides economic growth. Counties see improved agricultural production and better health outcomes and lower health care costs, partly due to the rise of telemedicine.
Providing reliable broadband access to rural communities doesn’t ensure these benefits will follow, though. There is an adoption gap; rural Americans aren’t using the internet even when it is available in their area. Many don’t know how to use the internet, don’t see the benefits of using it, or don’t have the resources to afford it. This gap is important because internet adoption in an area is strongly correlated with positive economic development, but availability alone doesn’t produce the same results. To confront the adoption gap, states will have to consider policy solutions that go beyond just providing the necessary infrastructure if they aim to improve internet access for all Americans.
What States Can Do
States can use a variety of approaches to expand internet access among rural residents beyond making additional infrastructure investments.
Increase Demand. Most broadband plans focus on employing supply-side interventions, creating a stronger infrastructure foundation to increase access to broadband. However, states have often overlooked the demand side of the broadband market and neglected opportunities to address the adoption gap. A 2010 paper from Pepperdine University offers several policies that states can use to mitigate this gap through demand-side policy: reducing broadband prices, increasing computer ownership, teaching digital literacy, and convincing residents of the value broadband provides. Implementing policies like these that focus on inclusion of rural Americans will also do more to shrink the adoption gap than building new fiber optic networks.
Erase restrictive laws and regulations. While states work on larger reforms around the supply and demand of broadband, they can also reform existing laws that prevent internet availability in rural areas. In particular, states should remove laws that favor big telecommunications companies and stifle communities that want to establish their own internet services. Twenty-six states have restrictive laws that impede local governments from establishing municipal broadband. Examples of restrictions include bureaucratic obstacles, challenging referendum requirements, and unnecessary taxes.
Many of these laws stem from telecom lobbying. Telecom lobbyists in Mississippi recently blocked a city’s attempt to issue bonds for the development of its existing fiber optic network. The telecom lobby, representing Comcast and other industry leaders, has similarly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars opposing municipal broadband initiatives in Colorado cities.
Cities across the country like Gibbon, Minnesota have chosen not to wait on the federal or state government, opting to create their own utility cooperative to provide internet access to the city’s estimated 750 residents. The move paid dividends in 2018, when a 3D printing business moved to the city because of the access to reliable internet.
In a heavily politicized and gridlocked environment, rural broadband is a great opportunity to affect millions of lives and bring all of America into the 21st century. There are two reasons to be optimistic about possible effective policy responses. First, it’s been done before. There is a national playbook from the New Deal era: the Communications Act of 1934 and the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 created a foundation for much of the communications framework that exists today. There are state success stories as well. North Dakota and Maine are two of the most rural states in the country, and the two rank inside the top twenty with broadband access rates at 92 and 90 percent, respectively.
Second, internet access isn’t a highly politicized issue, and policymakers on the left and right have found reasons to invest. Reforms have been made in politically-opposed states like New Hampshire and Mississippi, while restrictive laws are still being pushed in states like North Carolina and Michigan. There are real opportunities for states to lead when it comes to increasing internet access for their rural residents. As the economy continues to develop and transform, rural Americans can either be included in the modern economy, or left behind.