The Digital Divide and Rural America: The Urgency of Connectivity in the Era of COVID-19

Connect Americans Now Briefing Highlights Need for Action to Expand Broadband Access for Agriculture, Education, Small Businesses, Veterans and Rural Communities

Connect Americans Now (CAN), hosted a virtual briefing, “The Digital Divide and Rural America: The Urgency of Connectivity in the Era of COVID-19, on Tuesday.

CAN was joined for the briefing by a panel representing agricultural producers & farmers, American enterprise & innovators, rural communities, educators & students and veterans, who spoke to:

  1. The impact of the digital divide on these constituencies and the urgency for action, particularly in the time of COVID-19.
  2. The commendable progress that has been made to clear regulatory burdens to innovation, maximize spectrum resources, improve data and expand connectivity.
  3. The actions Congress can take to tackle this urgent problem and completely eliminate the digital divide in America, including by allocating resources for broadband deployments that will most rapidly and most cost-effectively bridge the broadband gap.

RJ Karney, Director of Congressional Relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, highlighted the need for broadband connectivity for farmers to realize the full potential of precision agriculture:

“Farmers having the availability to utilize technology and use it to its greatest potential is going to have a significant impact moving forward … we’re talking about things like soil health, plant health, being able to monitor your livestock and cattle to help with the animal. There’s great potential here when discussing broadband and precision agriculture.”

Karney also noted Congress took commendable action to fix faulty broadband mapping data earlier this year and now must provide the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the funding needed to implement those changes:

“With the signing of the Broadband DATA Act into law earlier in January, there’s great potential and there is a need to actually provide the FCC with the funding needed to implement that bill … inaccurate maps have been one of the greatest hurdles in getting broadband funding to areas that need it most.”

Betsy Huber, President of the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, discussed how the digital divide impacts nearly every aspect of life in rural communities — particularly impacting education and health care:

“It just hurts me to see that education for many students in this country ended in mid-March because of a lack of broadband. They weren’t able to complete the school year with learning.”

“Rural areas don’t have the health care providers that urban areas do. And when you’re afraid to go to the doctor or don’t have that option, then it’s even worse in this time … The doctors can do so much by internet, by telehealth … we need action on [this] right away, not in five years.”

Allen Pratt, Executive Director of the National Rural Education Association, stressed the need for immediate action on funding to expand connectivity to support continued learning in unserved and underserved communities:

“We need rapid help in the rural communities … it’s vital for them to stay connected with their school, their teachers, and the educational environment … Any money coming from the feds and also the state is well received to help our rural communities out.”

Pratt also noted school districts have faced substantial challenges pivoting to remote learning in a short time frame, especially in areas with low rates of connectivity for students at home:

“Many of the districts that we serve went from a face to face environment to having to adopt or build or work through a learning management system so that they can educate their students within a two week period … we knew beforehand that there was digital divide or connection issue and … we’re seeing a 30-60 percent connectivity for a lot of our homes that our rural schools are serving.”

Justin Hauschild, a legal fellow at Student Veterans of America, discussed the measures veterans pursuing a secondary education without connectivity are often forced to take in order to keep up with their education:

“For student veterans and military connected students without connectivity, it can be a real challenge … in the context of COVID-19 … we’re seeing folks traveling to parking lots and institutions to try and pick up on WIFI just so that they can submit assignments or have access to online learning platforms.”

Jordan Crenshaw, Executive Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Technology Engagement Center, outlined the vast economic potential being sidelined by a lack of broadband connectivity for rural small businesses:

“Rural small businesses are trying to innovate, the problem is, it’s a connectivity issue. We’ve only seen 20 percent of rural small businesses actually generate the vast majority of their selling of products and services online … if we actually have full adoption of digital tools for rural small businesses we’d actually see an additional $74 billion in sales per year, an addition of $41 billion in GDP and we’d actually add at least 300,000 jobs to the economy.”

Crenshaw emphasized the importance of congressional action to deploy targeted, timely and technology neutral resources to tackle specific needs like the homework gap:

“In terms of education and the homework gap issue, we think Congress has the role in spending funds in a tech-neutral manner and in a timely targeted and temporary fashion to make sure that those funds are able to connect students.”

Crenshaw also pointed to the importance of updating America’s regulatory landscape to protect consumers and unleash private-sector innovation to help close the digital divide:

“There should be an effort to put funds in places where there are unserved communities, to make sure we’re efficiently spending that money and also when it comes to broadband policy in general, making sure we have a regulatory framework in place that’s designed for the 21st century … that protects consumers but also at the same time enables some of the innovation in some of the private sector we’ve seen.”

Watch the full Connect Americans Now virtual briefing HERE.

Learn more about Connect Americans Now and how you can get involved to support our mission to bridge the digital divide HERE.

Join our fight to bring broadband to all rural Americans. Tell Washington to take action to bridge the digital divide now!