Rural Digital Deserts Prevent Affordable Internet Access for Millions

The FCC’s most recent report indicates that there are still 34 million Americans without access to high-speed internet services

With network capabilities approaching the speed of light; the internet has created a global community. Real-time communication, educational opportunities, commerce, and entertainment are all delivered via digital airways—and all is right with the online world. Or is it?

The Federal Communications Commission’s most recent report indicates that there are still 34 million Americans without access to high-speed internet services. To put it in perspective, that’s 10 percent of the entire population of the U.S. More than 2 million have no access to internet at all, and new technology is widening the gap.

Internet Speed Affects Accessibility

Areas with few or no broadband providers are referred to as “digital deserts,” and offer download speeds that are reminiscent of dial-up and early DSL. Tribal areas across the west experience some of the most limited internet access; with over a million people going completely without.

For a connection to be called “high-speed” it needs to have a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second (mbps) and minimum upload speed of 3 mbps. Rural and remote areas often experience speeds that are less than a quarter of that. This poses a huge problem for communities and businesses who need internet access for anything more than checking their email.

These digital deserts are a cord cutter’s worst nightmare. Even low-quality video streaming requires a steady 4-5 mbps download speed, and anything high-def is absolutely out of the question.

Rural America Misses Out on More than Just Streaming

Lagging internet speeds can make it impossible to access certain content, and this means missing out on everything from online lessons to video streaming. School systems across the U.S. are moving into the digital classroom, and expecting students to participate. Children living in rural areas are left out, and aren’t always offered comparable educational alternatives.

The FCC and state and local governments are working to try and entice more broadband providers to expand their service areas, resulting in the creation of the Connect America Fund (CAF). The CAF gives a portion of the funds collected from phone bills to broadband providers to cover the cost of expansion. If a service provider agrees to this, they’re also required to provide access to upload speeds of at least 10 mbps. However, in November of this year the FCC proposed that the speed requirement be raised to 25 mpbs to allow equal access for more Americans.

Unfortunately, many of these broadband companies claim that it’s still too expensive to justify the cost. Because of this, rural areas have been at the mercy of satellite internet providers like Hughes Net who restrict data and charge inflated prices for slower speeds.

Community-Based Solutions

Rural communities are coming together to find solutions for their lack of high-speed internet options. In Oklahoma, the electric co-op decided not to wait for broadband providers to get on board. Instead, they laid 2,497 miles of fiber optic cable and created their own internet co-op called Bolt Fiber Optic Services. It’s made huge social and economic improvements to the area; showing how important broadband access is to rural communities.

New initiatives may be in the works for 2019, and the introduction of 5th generation connectivity could be the key to connecting everyone across the U.S. Universally available internet access means universal access to streaming services, and a boost for rural communities and cord cutters alike.

Patricia Howard


Article Author

Patricia Howard is a freelance journalist and Netflix enthusiast from rural Indiana. She has a bachelor''s degree in communication with a concentration in journalism. When Patricia isn''t writing, she enjoys catching up on her favorite shows with her husband and seven children.

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