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Know the West

How to solve the rural-urban digital divide

The author of ‘Farm Fresh Broadband’ draws on history to chart a better future for rural internet access.

 

“The local route, is much more amenable to connecting hard to reach areas than the large corporate model,” Christopher Ali said. A technician climbs a rooftop broadband tower at the Nez Perce Tribal Headquarters in Lapwai, Idaho. The tribal utility has been providing broadband to the rural Nez Perce Reservation and surrounding households over a decade.
Courtesy of Nez Perce Tribe Network Systems

The familiar, interminable spinning wheel of an internet loading screen — a common annoyance for rural internet users — is an apt metaphor for the lagging deployment of decent rural broadband. Over the last two decades, billions of federal dollars have been spent to improve rural internet access, with decidedly underwhelming results: One in five rural households still lack adequate internet access. In the Western U.S., states with dispersed rural populations, such as Alaska, Montana and Wyoming, have some of the worst connectivity in the country. Internet access follows racial divides as well as rural-urban divides: Two-thirds of rural Indigenous households lack quality internet connections.

Christopher Ali, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, believes these digital divides can be bridged if we empower rural communities to become their own internet providers. In his new book, Farm Fresh Broadband, Ali argues for a revival of the kind of New Deal-era rural electrification investments in order to connect far-flung towns with fast, reliable internet.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of high-quality internet for work, education and health care underscored the need to connect rural communities. Otherwise, they will continue to wither and be left behind. Farm Fresh Broadband calls out the power brokers of the digital age for their poor service to rural communities, and outlines a path to a more connected and community-focused future for rural broadband. I spoke with Ali on a video call; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Christopher Ali, author and associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia.
Courtesy photo

Carl Segerstrom: How does the history of federal rural development programs, like the ones we had for electricity and telephones, echo the challenges of expanding rural broadband today?

Christopher Ali: The president said, in March 2021, that broadband is the next electricity; Biden said that he was invoking the history of the Rural Electrification Administration, which was founded in 1935. That was a time when private power companies were really unwilling to serve rural communities, very similar to how private broadband companies today are not willing to serve rural communities. The general argument is that there’s not enough return on investment, there’s not enough people living in that area, and they live too far apart to merit the deployment of broadband.

In the days of the New Deal, Roosevelt was saying, “We need electricity for everybody, particularly rural areas.” And it was incredibly successful. Because what you had is the empowering of local communities to connect themselves using a concerted and well-funded strategy from the federal government. 

CS: What are the biggest policy challenges today when it comes to connecting rural areas to fast and reliable internet?

CA: I think federal policy for broadband is working exactly as it should, because it was designed to favor Big Telco (AT&T, Verizon, Frontier, CenturyLink, Windstream). Big Telco is winning the digital divide. I make an analogy in the book that just as pharmaceutical companies make more money when something is chronic, rather than when something is cured, because they can just keep rolling out pills, these telecom companies can make more money keeping the digital divide in place because they’re getting so much federal money.

CS: One of your main arguments in the book is for empowering local communities and cooperatives to improve internet service. Why does local matter for something like the internet?

CA:  We have seen in the last six months — and it’s exciting to see this development with new coronavirus funding — language that prioritizes local providers. Local providers, regional providers, electric co-ops and telephone cooperatives think about broadband as an investment in the community, and not just a market investment. The cooperative route, the local route, is much more amenable to connecting hard-to-reach areas than the large corporate model. People trust local providers because of that local accountability. It’s very different when your broadband is out, and you’re going to run into your broadband provider at the grocery store. The way to turn good-enough broadband into great broadband is to make it local. Local broadband is the best broadband.

Local broadband is the best broadband.”

A Nez Perce Network Systems technician works on equipment on a tower above Lenore, Idaho, that they share with other wireless broadband providers.
Courtesy of Nez Perce Tribe Network Systems

CS: But, as you point out in the book, not all rural communities get the same benefits of local and reliable internet access.

CA: As a broadband community and policymakers, we don’t spend enough time talking about tribal broadband. There’s a big push, particularly in California, to deploy much more robust networks to tribal communities, which I think is great. The infrastructure bill gives $2 billion for tribal deployment on top of another billion dollars that came from a previous coronavirus package. We’re starting to see attention, and more importantly, money, flow into this really important cause.

CS: When it comes to money flowing, there’s been some major infrastructure funding since the book was released. What do you think the impact of recent spending will be for rural internet users? 

CA: I think it has tremendous potential. The infrastructure bill allocates $65 billion for broadband, $42 billion of which would be for rural and tribal areas — that’s huge. I am concerned that we don’t have a good track record of spending federal money on broadband, because typically it’s been going to the largest and the loudest providers. If history is any indication, you’re going to see big telecommunications companies knock on the door and say, “Hey, give us the money and we’ll do the connections.” That’s what they’ve been promising for 20 years, and those connections haven’t happened. So, I’m excited about the money — and scared that history might repeat itself.

Carl Segerstrom, a former editor at High Country News, writes from Spokane, Washington. 

 

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