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Pandemic-era lockdowns put an unmistakable spotlight on digital equity — particularly for K-12 students. But nowhere is the digital divide larger than in the Black rural South.
Even after service providers launched discounts for broadband services during the pandemic — often targeting online learning — Black Americans across the South saw little change in their access to broadband services.
New research from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies puts these challenges in perspective. Students in the Black rural South — a region of more than 152 rural counties with populations that are at least 35 percent Black — face some of the largest and most acute digital equity gaps in the country.
With the passage of the federal infrastructure bill, we may finally have a framework for making progress ifwe’re willing to put equity at the center of the legislation’s implementation.
Add the bill’s $14.25 billion for a $30-per-month broadband subsidy for low-income Americans, and we stand to make gains in both access and affordability.
The Joint Center found that nearly half of Black children in the Black rural South live in poverty, compared to 18 percent of their white counterparts. Thirty six percent of Black students in the rural South lack high-speed broadband — more than double the national average of 15.8 percent.
This likely explains why a quarter of Black teens reported not being able to do their homework due to a lack of reliable internet access — nearly twice the rate of white teens.
And one in four Black residents in the rural South lack even the option to subscribe to high-speed broadband, compared with one in 26 Americans overall.
Put simply, this lack of broadband infrastructure magnifies the structural racism experienced by Black families in the Black rural South — and it is arguably most directly felt by families with students.
So how might the new infrastructure package change that?
But with states slated to get just $42.5 billion in funds for broadband deployment, how policymakers choose to invest their allocations will determine how much we close existing equity gaps.
Thankfully, the bipartisan package creates some incentives for states to target low-income communities and diminish digital inequity.
By prioritizing federal infrastructure funding for projects developed by “anchor institutions,” like Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), local governments will promote broadband access, adoption, telehealth and digital readiness in the schools’ nearby communities. HBCUs are trusted institutions for Black Americans and play a significant role in increasing access to services for their surrounding rural residents.
Crucially, the legislation also provides $2.75 billion in additional grant-making capacity for community organizations that have digital equity and inclusion initiatives — including nonprofits that serve rural students.
Add the bill’s $14.25 billion for a $30-per-month broadband subsidy for low-income Americans, and we stand to make gains in both access andaffordability — which would have a ripple effect across underserved communities stretching from Arkansas and Louisiana to Virginia and North Carolina.
We know that broadband investments foster larger employment gains in rural areas than in metro areas — increasing job growth rates by an average of 80 new jobs for every 1,000 new broadband users.
Yet, funding alone will fall short of equity goals without other critical reforms that the infrastructure legislation does not deliver.
A quarter of Black teens reported not being able to do their homework for lack of reliable internet access — nearly twice the rate of white teens.
The success of one of its most important provisions — a directive for the FCC to reform its universal service program — will depend on whether regulators require broadband providers to contribute to the universal service fund that subsidizes high-cost support for rural areas, rural healthcare support programs or the E-rate program for schools and libraries.
So as we expand access and create new subsidies, we must also break down barriers that lead to high costs and digital redlining — the systematic exclusion of low-income neighborhoods from high-speed, affordable internet service.
It’s past time that the FCC create rules that define digital redlining and penalize providers that exclude low-income communities from quality broadband services.
In some cases, attacking costs most effectively may require public ownership of broadband networks. That means we must empower communities to offer their own high-speed municipal broadband by rolling back state laws that currently prevent them from doing so.
If the country is to “build back better,” as the White House has stated, then we should start with students and families across the Black Rural South.
Dominique Harrison is the director of the Joint Center’s Technology Policy Program and author of “Affordability & Availability: Expanding Broadband in the Black Rural South.” Dr. Harrison is also a chair of the Digital Empowerment and Inclusion Working Group of the Federal Communications Commission’s Communications Equity and Diversity Council (CEDC).
This story about broadband access was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.