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The power of digital connectivity is undeniable. 

Yet, as cities buzz with the latest technological advancements, vast stretches of rural America remain in the shadows of the digital age. 

This isn’t just about missing out on the latest streaming show or social media trend. It’s about missed opportunities in education, healthcare, business, and community growth. 

The digital divide is a reflection of deeper societal disparities. And it’s essential to understand the root causes, the broader implications, and the collective steps we can take to bridge this gap. 

The journey towards a digitally inclusive society is long, but with awareness, action, and collaboration, progress is not just possible—it’s inevitable.

Table of Contents

The Undeniably Negative Impact of the Rural Digital Divide

Rural-Urban Broadband Disparities in Numbers

In the span of a decade, rural digital connectivity has seen significant shifts. In 2007, only about a third (35%) of rural Americans had a broadband internet connection at home. Fast forward to the 2020s, and this figure has nearly doubled, with roughly two-thirds (63%) now connected. 

Yet, as heartening as this progress might seem, it’s essential to view it in the broader context of nationwide connectivity. While urban areas boast a near-universal high-speed broadband access rate of 98%, rural areas lag behind significantly, with barely two-thirds of rural residents enjoying the same access. 

As we look deeper into the complexity of this divide, it becomes evident that the issue isn’t just about numbers. It’s about the stories behind these numbers, the missed opportunities, and the potential waiting to be unlocked. Remember: every statistic you’re about to read represents the impact that this divide has on individuals, their livelihoods, and their dreams.

The Economic and Societal Cost of the Rural Digital Divide

A Lack of Affordable High-Speed Internet Kills Rural Businesses

The ability to connect online isn’t just a luxury; it’s a necessity for businesses to thrive. Rural businesses, often the pillars of their communities, are finding themselves sidelined in the race to modernize and compete. Without broadband access, they’re missing out on e-commerce opportunities, global marketplaces, and even the potential of cloud computing. This isn’t merely about staying current; it’s about survival in a rapidly evolving business landscape. The staggering $47 billion annual economic loss they face is a testament to the tangible consequences of the digital divide. But beyond the numbers, it’s the stifling of innovation, entrepreneurship, and local economic growth that paints a more concerning picture.

Anemic Access to High-Speed Internet Makes Rural Agriculture Difficult

Agriculture, a sector deeply intertwined with the history and identity of America, is at the forefront of technological evolution. From drone surveillance to precision farming, modern agricultural practices are becoming increasingly data-driven. 

But without broadband, the promise of these innovations remains largely unfulfilled in rural areas. The $18 – $23 billion annual cost to the U.S. agriculture sector is more than just a financial figure. It represents lost opportunities for sustainable farming, reduced waste, and the potential to lead in global agricultural innovation.

The Rural Digital Divide is Hampering Rural Students’ Learning Outcomes

The classroom of today extends beyond four walls. Digital tools, online resources, and virtual collaboration platforms are shaping the educational experiences of students. 

Yet, for many students in rural areas, this digital evolution remains elusive. When 70% of teachers are leveraging the internet for assignments, the absence of high-speed internet in 5 million households with school-aged children isn’t just a logistical challenge.

It’s a barrier to equal opportunity, a hindrance to personal growth, and a potential anchor on future aspirations. In fact, it’s been estimated that a lack of high-speed internet in rural areas is putting rural students on track to lose $70,000 – per student – in lifetime earnings.

More than that, this rural digital divide risks a generation of students being left behind, not just in education but in future career opportunities, social mobility, and the chance to break out of cyclical economic challenges.

A Lack of Cheap Rural WiFi Makes Accessing Healthcare a Challenge

Healthcare, a sector that thrives on innovation and timely intervention, has seen a transformative impact with the rise of telehealth. For rural residents, telehealth isn’t just a convenience—it’s often a necessity, bridging the gap between remote locations and quality medical care. The potential savings of between $140 and $190 per visit underscores its economic benefits. 

Yet, during a global health crisis, when 55% of rural residents turned to telehealth, many grappled with inconsistent and unreliable internet connections. More than not being able to access medical advice, lack of reliable internet access has broader implications on well-being, mental health, and community resilience in the face of adversity.

It’s clear that the challenges of the rural digital divide resonate deeply within the fabric of daily life in rural America. From a child’s education to an elder’s health consultation, the absence of reliable internet touches every facet of existence. Let’s explore the root causes of this divide, and try to understand its origins and the path forward.

The Root Causes of the Rural Digital Divide

Urban areas, with their dense populations and commercial hubs, have always been prime targets for infrastructure investments. This means they get the latest in roads, utilities, and, yes, technological infrastructure like broadband. In contrast, rural areas, with their vast landscapes and scattered populations, haven’t seen the same level of investment. Why?

Lower Population Density: Simply put, there are fewer people living in rural areas. For companies, this means fewer customers to sell their services to, making it less profitable to invest in the infrastructure needed for high-speed internet.

Challenging Terrain and Geography: Rural areas often have challenging terrains like mountains, forests, or large water bodies. Laying down cables or setting up towers in such terrains is a labor-intensive process with many logistical hurdles, making it even more difficult and costly. Not to mention, there are often vast areas between rural towns to cover where there are few to no people who would be using the service.These geographical challenges aren’t mere inconveniences; they’re fundamental barriers that demand innovative solutions.

Maximizing Short-Term ROI is Difficult: For many service providers, the cost of building the infrastructure in rural areas outweighs the potential returns, especially when compared to densely populated urban areas. Consider the act of laying fiber, a fundamental step in broadband deployment. In rural areas, this can cost a staggering $25,000 to $30,000 per mile through difficult and vast terrains. This financial barrier underscores why many service providers hesitate to venture into these regions, leaving them underserved and disconnected.

The result? While city dwellers enjoy high-speed internet and the benefits that come with it, rural communities are often left grappling with slow or even non-existent connections, widening the digital divide.

Recognizing these root causes is the first step in crafting meaningful solutions. As we move ahead, we’ll explore the many ways these challenges can be addressed, ensuring that every American, regardless of their location, has access to the digital world.

Solutions and Recommendations to Empower Rural Areas with High-Speed Internet

The Role of the Federal Government in Empowering Rural Broadband Efforts

Addressing the digital divide is a call to collective action, with the federal government at the helm. The rural broadband gap isn’t merely a regional concern; it’s a national challenge that affects the socio-economic fabric of the entire country. Recognizing this, the federal government stands as a pivotal force, equipped with the resources, reach, and regulatory power to drive meaningful change. Their role is crucial for several reasons:

Funding: The government can allocate funds specifically for rural broadband projects. For instance, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has programs like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which aims to bring high-speed broadband to rural homes and businesses.

Regulation: The government can set rules that encourage or even require companies to expand their services to rural areas. This can ensure that businesses don’t just focus on profitable urban centers.

Public-Private Partnerships: The government can work with private companies to create joint projects. This can make it more financially viable for businesses to expand into less profitable areas, knowing they have government support.

Research and Development: The government can fund research into new technologies or methods to bring the internet to geographic areas that have been left behind up to this point. This could include things like satellite internet or new methods of laying down cables in challenging terrain.

Awareness and Education: The government can run campaigns to inform people about the importance of broadband and how to get connected. They can also provide training programs to help people make the most of their new connections.

By leading in these areas, the federal government could ensure the push to bridge the rural digital divide is a coordinated, nationwide effort. Their involvement guarantees that the challenge is tackled not just at the community level, but with the full weight and resources of the nation behind it.

Emerging Technologies Offer Innovative Solutions to the Rural Digital Divide

While traditional broadband deployment has its challenges, the horizon of digital connectivity is illuminated by emerging technologies.

Fixed wireless, satellite, and mesh networks are not just alternatives; they are innovative solutions tailored for the unique challenges of rural landscapes. These technologies offer the promise of faster deployment, reduced costs, and broader coverage.

By harnessing these advancements, rural areas can leapfrog infrastructural barriers, tapping directly into high-speed, reliable internet services that were once deemed out of reach.

Rural Communities are Connecting Themselves to Cheap WiFi

Beyond top-down approaches, there’s immense power in grassroots movements. Local communities, understanding their unique challenges and needs, are stepping up to bridge the digital chasm. Take Chattanooga, Tennessee, for instance. This community’s initiative showcases the transformative potential of local solutions.

In 2010, Chattanooga became the first U.S. city to offer gigabit-speed internet service across its entire jurisdiction, thanks to the city’s Electric Power Board (EPB). With support from a federal stimulus grant, EPB established a citywide fiber-optic network, not just modernizing the city’s electrical grid but also laying the foundation for this broadband revolution. This wasn’t just about faster internet; it was a catalyst for economic rejuvenation. Chattanooga began drawing tech startups and innovative entrepreneurs, earning its moniker, “Gig City.”

The success of Chattanooga underscores the potency of local solutions. By mobilizing residents, leveraging local resources, and fostering collaboration, communities can craft their digital futures. Such endeavors prove that with determination, unity, and a touch of local ingenuity, the digital divide can be substantially narrowed, if not entirely bridged.

Human-I-T’s Role in Addressing the Rural Digital Divide

At the heart of the digital inclusion movement, Human-I-T actively works to dismantle barriers and foster connectivity. Our approach is pragmatic, rooted in tangible actions and measurable impacts.

Repurposing Technology: One person’s unused device is another’s gateway to the digital world. By collecting and refurbishing technology, we ensure that functional devices find a new home with those in need. This not only reduces e-waste but also provides essential tools for education, work, and communication for individuals looking for cheap computers in rural areas. 

Digital Literacy Training: Access to devices is just the starting point. We offer training programs that equip individuals with the skills to navigate the digital landscape confidently. From basic computer skills to advanced software training, our curriculum is designed to empower users at all knowledge and connectivity levels.

Cheap Internet for Rural Customers: Recognizing that hardware alone isn’t enough, we collaborate with partners to provide affordable internet services to residents in distant geographies. This ensures that those we serve can stay connected, access resources, and tap into the myriad opportunities the online world offers – no matter if they’re in the thick of the city or in the sticks. 

The rural digital divide, with its intricate layers and profound implications, is one of the defining challenges of our time. But as we’ve explored, solutions exist, and with concerted efforts, a connected, inclusive future is within reach. 

Human-I-T is more than just a part of this journey for rural wifi customers; we’re a catalyst, driving change and making it possible for anyone in rural areas to connect to cheap internet and achieve their goals online. 

Liz Cooper

About Liz Cooper