Better broadband maps will help close the digital divide in rural, urban areas | Opinion

Drowned out by the Beltway political media’s breathless post-game coverage of the midterm elections, one federal agency just quietly announced a major milestone in the struggle to extend internet access and digital opportunity to every American.

The majority of communities across the country already enjoy the benefits of fast, reliable, world-class broadband networks.  But for years, lawmakers, advocates, and broadband providers working to close the last remaining gaps across rural and sections of urban America have had to fight half-blind:  Just as it’s hard to battle an enemy you can’t see, it’s difficult to develop a plan for universal broadband without a precise view of where the gaps are.

That’s why the updated broadband maps the Federal Communications Commission are rolling out now represent a watershed moment in the fight for digital equity. Hurtling toward a future in which we can finally provide the digital access that we know is a prerequisite for economic mobility and educational opportunity and so much more for our communities.  We’ll soon have a much clearer roadmap to focus public spending and private investment where it’s most needed.

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Rural counties and Black communities struggle with access

These new maps are still more a rough draft than a finished product. But cities and states now have a critically important window of time to drill down – block by block and farm by farm – to spot mistakes and demand corrections.  The end product emerging next spring will give activists and advocates the clearest understanding we’ve ever had of the scale and scope of digital needs across all of  America, including many rural communities like the one I grew up in.

Broadband tower
Broadband tower

We already know that rural broadband isn’t just an issue in Deep Red counties:  in fact, a 2021 study of predominately Black counties in the rural South found that one in four Black families across the region similarly lacked options for broadband infrastructure.

It’s a simple math problem:  lower population densities in rural areas mean fewer potential customers per mile, making it difficult to cost-effectively build high-speed internet networks without public subsidies.  This challenge is precisely what  President Biden’s infrastructure bill was designed to solve.

But up until now, FCC data measuring broadband availability could not zoom down to the level of individual houses and businesses.  In other words, some unserved, unconnected homes across rural America – including in communities of color from the Black Belt to the Rio Grande Valley – may not have even counted as such in the government’s official measurement of the digital divide.  In urban areas, similar issues exist with respect to multiple dwelling units.

That’s why these improved broadband maps are so important.  Every broadband provider across the country had to send the FCC precise maps outlining their service areas, which the Commission then combined into a comprehensive, house-by-house view of the whole country.

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Critics may not like the approach, but consider this

Critics of Congress’s bipartisan broadband strategy are likely to jump all over the glitches and errors inevitable in such a rough draft as evidence of a flawed approach, or even suggest junking the FCC’s maps in favor of crowd-sourced speed test data.

Robert Branson
Robert Branson

But in fairness, Congress never intended for this first cut to be the final product r.  And rather than falling back on unreliable speed tests, the upcoming “challenge process” instead encourages local communities to raise objections and spot mistakes.

Instead of wasting organizing muscle and messaging megaphones by simply dismissing or criticizing these new maps, advocates would do better to focus their efforts on empowering and educating local officials and their communities to engage constructively and submit corrections.

These local, on-the-ground perspectives are critical to getting the maps right – which will make sure federal infrastructure dollars end up reaching the communities with the greatest needs.  Without accurate maps, too many of these dollars could end up in wasted building duplicative projects in wealthier areas which already have numerous high-speed internet options.

By preventing duplication and waste, accurate maps will allow more federal broadband funding to instead be focused on the equally pressing challenge of broadband adoption:  helping more Americans connect to networks already in place.

Black, Brown, and low-income families have persistently lower broadband adoption rates – but the combination of low-cost plans from providers, federal subsidies, and community-based “Digital Navigator” support programs will  help narrow the gap.

The late civil rights hero John Lewis once observed that “access to the internet is the civil rights issue of the 21st century” – an equalizer that opens up doors to so many other fundamental rights, from education to health care to civic empowerment.

The FCC’s broadband maps, once finalized, will illuminate the path toward the digital equality Congressman Lewis envisioned.

Robert E. Branson. Esq. is the president and CEO of the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC), a non-partisan, national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and preserving equal opportunity and civil rights in the mass media, telecom and broadband industries, and closing the digital divide. 

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Better broadband maps will help close the digital divide