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Race and the digital divide: Why broadband access is more than an urban vs rural issue


The Internet provides practically infinite economic and educational opportunities for users throughout the world. In our increasingly digital society, one’s ability to utilize the Internet bears greatly on their potential for individual success and upward mobility. Though high-speed Internet has propelled the 21stcentury economy forward, it hasn’t taken every American along with it. Across our country, 24 million people lack access to high speed Internet, and millions of low-income families simply can’t afford it.

The current disparity in access to broadband is often viewed narrowly as a rural concern; however, urban areas face significant barriers to access as well. In those communities, the obstacles to broadband adoption are most often associated with affordability or digital literacy. While broadband is widely available, the cost of access is often prohibitive, and some residents lack the skills to use the technology effectively. In addition to the adoption problem, many rural communities also lack the infrastructure to consistently access broadband networks, especially through a fixed connection. 

{mosads}Recent analysis by the think tank Third Way also uncovers an ugly truth about the rural broadband gap: it doesn’t impact all communities equally. When it comes to broadband access, communities of color continue to trail behind their white counterparts, even after differences in income are considered. Current research data shows that this gap in connectivity is yet another systemic disadvantage faced disproportionately by people of color.

Third Way’s study shows that as a county’s African American population rises, broadband availability drops significantly. This disturbing trend is especially apparent in rural areas. Across the country, nearly 75 percent of rural counties where most of the residents are white have broadband available to them. But average broadband availability is almost 20 percent lower—just 56 percent—in rural counties where a majority of residents are African American. In fact, rural communities that are majority African American tend to have fewer provider options and are more likely to be completely unserved.

The 1st District of North Carolina, home to more than 733,000 residents in the northeastern part of the state, is no exception to this troubling pattern. The lack of access to broadband is especially detrimental for those communities suffering from job disparities and in need of economic resurgence. In North Carolina there are 10 persistent poverty counties and of those, the 1st District contains seven. A significant percentage of the population in these areas have suffered decades of poverty resulting in poor educational outcomes and scarcity in health care resources.

These communities are struggling to afford broadband where it is available, as well as the equipment required to utilize it. As a result, there are more than 81,000 people or nearly 10 percent of North Carolina’s entire 1st District that do not have access to broadband in their homes. More than half of those people with this unique disadvantage are in majority-black counties.

Communities in North Carolina and around the country are working hard to provide the best opportunities for themselves and their families. However, the fact is that many folks, through no fault of their own, have a starting block that is set far behind their peers. While Congress works to update infrastructure around the country, we must take special care to address the digital infrastructure gap and ensure that all Americans are fully connected.

As policymakers, it is imperative that we address the digital divide with a clear understanding of who has been left behind and make a strong commitment to ensuring the opportunities of the digital age are equally available to every resident of the 1st District of North Carolina and to every American, regardless of where they live or the color of their skin.

G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat, represents North Carolina’s 1st District in the House of Representatives.

Tags Broadband access Digital divide G.K. Butterfield

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