Fallen Behind: Rural Broadband in the Age of Covid

About the Author: Ashley Brown is a first year law student at American University- Washington College of Law. Ashley graduated from Florida State University and hopes to work on the Hill or in government contracts after graduating law school. The views expressed in this blog are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of their employer.

 

Our nation is now more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and in an attempt to decrease exposure to the virus, we have witnessed the complete reshaping of our day to day lives.[1] Government orders meant to protect us have resulted in businesses being forced to shut down, restaurants serving at minimal capacities, and perhaps one of the most impactful changes to come from this pandemic: moving our lives to an online forum. People order their groceries online and have them delivered to their doorsteps, students are learning from home and interacting with classmates through a screen, adults are working from home adapting to the world of Zoom, and for many, telehealth services are now the only way to see their doctor.[2] These changes to our lives have demonstrated a growing need for fast and affordable internet access.[3] In 2000, about one percent of adults in the United States used broadband internet at home.[4] In 2021, virtually every American uses the internet daily.[5]

This shift in internet access going from a leisure to a necessity has caused many areas of the United States to be left behind, and has further increased the digital divide between urban and rural parts of our country.[6] Rural communities have already spent decades dealing with the repercussions resulting from a lack of access to broadband internet, and throughout the pandemic their struggles have only been amplified.[7] In 2020, 43 states introduced bills to address expanding broadband in underserved communities and 34 of those states enacted broadband legislation or adopted resolutions.[8] At a federal level, multiple bipartisan bills were introduced in the 116th Congress, including the Broadband DATA Act.[9] This legislation was signed into law in early 2020, shortly after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, and improved the way the FCC collects data through broadband availability maps.[10] These maps allow for the FCC to locate areas that are in need of federal funding to increase the availability of broadband services.[11] Prior to this legislation, the FCC could not accurately pinpoint the areas which were negatively impacted by the lack of internet access.[12] This bill ensures the FCC can now effectively collect data and correctly allocate funding.[13]

Historically, expanding broadband access has been an issue with vast bipartisan support, and has been a critical issue since 2009 when Congress instructed the FCC to develop a National Broadband Plan to move towards universal internet access for all Americans.[14] However, even though Congress has made important strides in pushing for universal internet access, work still needs to be done. In a time where nine out of ten adult Americans are in need of internet access, our leaders need to step in and bridge the digital gaps between cities and rural areas.[15] The lack of broadband services has forced families in these areas to go on a search for high-speed internet access, sometimes even having to travel out of town in order to complete schoolwork or log on to a work meeting.[16]

A group that has been active in voicing their concerns in the lack of broadband access is the American Farm Bureau Federation.[17] Throughout the years, farmers in rural communities have been adversely affected by the lack of internet access – a 2017 USDA report indicated that 29 percent of farms in the United States do not have internet access.[18] Farmers need the internet in order to more precisely grow and harvest their crops. A reliable connection to the internet allows farmers access to necessary information, such as the precise amount of water needed to grow a specific crop, the amount of herbicides or pesticides needed, and how much fertilizer a farmer would need to apply to a field.[19] Not only do farmers use the internet to access information on how best to grow their crops, but the lack of broadband service in these areas has hindered farmers’ ability to connect with larger markets and communicate with their customers.[20]

High speed internet access is not a new concern, but the pandemic has brought considerable attention to how important the need is to expand broadband to rural communities. COVID-19 has changed the lives of everyone all over the world and has forced everyone to live their lives through a computer screen. While the American people are increasing their internet usage exponentially, our legislators and telecommunication providers should be working together on expanding affordable, high speed internet into these rural communities to ensure every American has access to the internet.

 

[1] AJMC Staff, A Timeline of COVID-19 Developments in 2020, AJMC (Jan. 1, 2021), https://www.ajmc.com/view/a-timeline-of-covid19-developments-in-2020.

[2] Ceren Canal Aruoba, et al., Online Marketing, National Law Review (Sep. 21, 2020), https://www.natlawreview.com/article/online-marketing.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Expanding Broadband Access to Rural Communities, ABA (March 31, 2020), https://www.americanbar.org/advocacy/governmental_legislative_work/publications/washingtonletter/march-washington-letter-2020/broadband-032020/.

[7] Id.

[8] Heather Morton, Broadband 2020 Legislation, NCSL (Jan. 11, 2021), https://www.ncsl.org/research/telecommunications-and-information-technology/broadband-2020-legislation.aspx.

[9] Id.

[10] Broadband DATA Act, S. 1822, 116th Cong. (2020).

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan, FCC (Mar. 16, 2010).

[15] Heather Morton, Broadband 2020 Legislation, NCSL (Jan. 11, 2021), https://www.ncsl.org/research/telecommunications-and-information-technology/broadband-2020-legislation.aspx.

[16] Russ Quinn, COVID-19 Tests Slow Internet, DTN (May 22, 2020), https://www.dtnpf.com/agriculture/web/ag/news/business-inputs/article/2020/05/22/rural-areas-struggle-lack-broadband.

[17] Rural Broadband, American Farm Bureau Federation, https://www.fb.org/issues/infrastructure/broadband/.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

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