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Rural latino communities need internet access

Rural latino communities need internet access
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With the election over, the time for politics is gone, and the time for good public policy has arrived. Latinos, in particular, is counting on the federal government to provide solutions and leadership through the COVID-19 pandemic. Many policies play into this, but one of the most important is expanding internet access to rural communities, including Latinx communities.

With nearly 1,000 rural Latino communities spread across the country, rural internet access has long been a priority for Latinos. But the past eight months have created a new sense of urgency. 

Latinos make up more than a third of American COVID-19 cases, many of whom live in rural areas far off the beaten path. Those affected have turned to the internet for help. It has enabled them to keep jobs, run small businesses, continue their children’s schooling, obtain health care, and more. With 61 percent of Hispanic-Americans reporting job or wage losses, the internet has been critically essential for finding economic opportunities, providing for families, and helping communities hit the hardest.

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But that’s only possible if internet access is available, which isn’t for 31 percent of Latinos. Most are clustered in rural communities, where high-speed broadband internet is the hardest to find. To take just one example: Chimayo, New Mexico is more than 90 percent Latino, yet only 41.8 percent of its residents have broadband internet access. Plenty of other communities are in the same sad situation. The absence of internet connectivity is a barrier standing in the way of access to critical information and resources during the pandemic.

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) has run up against this barrier many times. Since the pandemic, we have supported Latino families through information sharing and made resources available online in both Spanish and English. We have also supported local communities facing economic hardship through our COVID Relief Fund. Yet, our ability to help Latinos in need is directly affected by their access to the internet. Without high-speed internet, millions of Latinos in rural communities are at risk of falling further behind economically and educationally. 

LULAC recently linked arms with fellow Latino advocacy partners, including the Hispanic Federation and the National Latino Farmer and Ranchers Trade Association, to spread awareness of the rural digital divide and its consequences. We have also called on Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and his fellow Commissioners to bridge that divide and deliver broadband connectivity to rural Americans. 

We have focused on the FCC because it is in a prime position to make an immediate difference in many ways.  In particular, it can make sure that broadband deployment to rural areas is not delayed by regulatory or marketplace impediments. For example, the FCC oversees the regulations involving access to utility poles, which internet providers use to expand broadband internet access. However, too often, utility pole owners make it more costly and time-consuming for internet providers to gain access to the poles. As a result, the process of rolling out the internet to rural communities is more expensive than it should be and it is ultimately delayed. 

The FCC can solve this problem by clarifying its rules and ensuring equitable cost-sharing between utility companies and internet providers when a pole needs to be replaced. Access is sought to accommodate an internet provider's equipment.  

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This is why 19 national organizations representing communities of color, many of them Latino, recently petitioned the FCC.  While the details are complicated, the outcome is not: expanding high-speed internet would be faster and more affordable, benefitting Latino families in rural communities across America.

We have finally come to an end of one of the most historic elections in our history. With a groundbreaking number of voters turning out in over 100 years, it’s clear that the American public needs leadership and action to address the challenges of our time. Connectivity is absolutely a priority and we stand ready to work with a Biden administration to make progress. At the same time, we will continue to press the FCC to support rural broadband deployment as well as look to a new Congress to take up rural broadband early in the next year. 

Ultimately, to strengthen our local and national economy, policymakers must step up to ensure rural communities, including the Latino community, have the tools they need to regain lost ground and continue to succeed. High-speed internet access is key for every Latino living in rural America. The sooner they get it, the sooner they can unlock the opportunities that make them a driving force in our nation’s economy.

Sindy Benavides is CEO of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).