One of the major barriers to expanding broadband in rural Alabama is lack of high-speed internet access. The COVID-19 pandemic sent many college students home to study. But plans to expand high-speed Internet in rural Alabama have prompted a nationwide push to increase access to rural broadband. What are the challenges? What are the benefits of expanding high-speed Internet in rural areas? How can we address these issues?
Disparities in broadband access based on poverty
According to the third way report, the rural broadband gap does not affect all communities equally. Communities of color have far fewer providers than their white counterparts and a high proportion of them are unserved. Those are systemic disadvantages for rural communities. In fact, a study conducted in rural Alabama showed that the percentage of black households without internet access is 81 percent. While this difference is still significant, it is still a troubling reality for many people.
The report reveals that there are large gaps in broadband access among children of different socioeconomic groups. Students living in families with a median income of less than $25,000 per year – roughly 100 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four – are much less likely to have internet access than students living in low and moderate-income households.
These disparities are significant enough to warrant a study of rural broadband access. But there are still many gaps to be filled. Currently, rural Americans lack access to high-speed broadband, and this could lead to a greater chance for poverty and disease. The data also show that rural residents in these communities have lower rates of broadband than their city-dwelling counterparts. Further, rural Alabama has a high rate of senior citizens, which could be a factor in health disparities.
Impediments to expanding broadband in rural Alabama
The Connect Alabama Act, which provides a plan for bringing high-speed internet to rural areas, has met with opposition. Some of the rural communities in the state are not yet connected to the internet, which may slow down the buildout of high-tech companies. However, state senator Clay Scofield has championed rural broadband expansion and has introduced legislation that will help rural communities build their broadband infrastructure. But challenges to this plan may prevent the state from taking the lead on rural broadband expansion.
The government of Oconee County in Alabama, for instance, received a $9.6 million federal grant for broadband expansion and matched it with $4.7 million of county funds. The county wanted to offer broadband service to residents through a public utility. However, this was not feasible due to the federal requirements and limitations on government spending. In Alabama, the state government can only operate broadband networks as a wholesale supplier and must lease the infrastructure to private companies.
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Plans to expand high-speed internet access
Alabama’s Black Belt has long trailed in infrastructure and broadband access, and the state is no exception. It’s the poorest region in the nation, and a UN representative recently investigated the state’s rural areas. The Education Policy Center recently reported that there will be no broadband access in some Alabama counties by 2020, spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. The state must work to address this problem.
The state legislature is currently working to improve broadband connectivity, while also spending federal COVID-19 recovery funds. A bipartisan effort has been gaining support from lawmakers in Alabama and across the country. In Alabama, one bipartisan lawmaker is promoting a bill that would guarantee high-speed Internet access to all residents, regardless of where they live. While many residents of rural areas might not be able to use the internet on a daily basis, those living in small towns are particularly in need of fast broadband connections.
The Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund, which is administered by the state’s Department of Economic and Community Affairs, is helping to make rural areas more accessible with better broadband service. A state law passed in 2019 allows broadband carriers to partner with local electric companies in rural areas, using existing infrastructure and easements to expand services. In addition, Alabama’s legislature has created the Alabama Digital Expansion Authority to develop a statewide connectivity plan.