Joe Biden wants to provide millions of Americans with high-speed internet. It won’t be easy.

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WASHINGTON – In Thompson Falls, Montana, schools practically came to a halt in the spring of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic forced children to learn remotely in a region where high-speed internet is almost nonexistent. In Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the hospital was forced to transfer emergency room patients roughly 75 miles away to Las Cruces because a loss of connectivity meant it could not properly diagnose them. And in Cleveland and other large cities, access to broadband varies from neighborhood to neighborhood, often based on affluence.

Even before the pandemic, which largely confined most Americans to their homes for months, communities that lacked reliable high-speed internet began falling behind those that were well-connected. The pandemic exacerbated the nation’s "digital divide" – and those who suffered most were in low-income areas, a USA TODAY analysis of federal and private sector data found.

Washington and some internet providers are trying to solve the problem by expanding access, but experts and lawmakers haven't settled on what specifically needs to be done, even as President Joe Biden and Republican lawmakers want to invest billions into a broadband-expansion effort.

Social distancing restrictions forced businesses, schools and governments to conduct day-to-day functions online. As a result, tens of millions found their lack of high-speed internet a barrier that's likely to worsen as the nation accelerates its transition to electronic forms of communication and commerce.

“People are living through what it means and seeing it in very stark terms what it means to be left behind, to be unconnected,” said Vickie Robinson, who runs tech giant Microsoft’s Airband Initiative to reach unserved and underserved areas of rural and urban America. “Even if we come out of it, things that have gone digital will probably remain that way. The world will become increasingly digitized, not less.”

That's foreboding news for America's poor.

Electricity transformed rural America nearly a century ago. Now, millions of people on farms and in small towns desperately need broadband.

In America's 100 counties with the highest median income, about 95% of households have broadband access on average – while that number is 63% in the 100 poorest counties, according to data from the Federal Communications Commission, which tracks internet availability nationally. In terms of actual usage, Microsoft data paints an even bleaker picture. About 12% of those poorest counties’ residents use broadband on average, compared with 65% in America's wealthiest counties.

A Pew study found 43% of adults in the USA earning less than $30,000 a year lack broadband compared with just 7% for those making $100,000 or more.

The numbers show the gap exists, but experts told USA TODAY the reasons why may be more nuanced.

'Skews for the wealthy'

Like so many other facets of American life, wealth is a dividing line on access to broadband.

Internet companies generally find it more profitable to run high-speed cables to dense areas, where they can sell more subscriptions per mile, a problem that often leaves rural residents without the option of subscribing at high speeds. In urban areas where the technology exists, wealthier residents are more likely to be able to afford speed upgrades.

“You can pay for the higher speeds,” said Jessica Denson, the spokesperson for Connected Nation, which works to expand high-speed internet across the country. “It is a business for these providers, so for the higher speeds, they do charge a little more, so that skews for the wealthy.”

For low-income families weighing what they can afford, high-speed internet is not always at the top of the list, she said.

Biden and Congress are trying to remedy that, first through the American Rescue Plan passed in March that gave states for the first time flexibility to spend federal aid on improving broadband, and now through a mammoth infrastructure proposal that Democrats and Republicans agree should include billions to expand high-speed networks coast to coast.

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The data USA TODAY examined and conversations with various stakeholders underscore the difficulty of meeting Biden’s promise of providing “affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American.”

Though there's wide agreement among Republicans and Democrats that the nation's internet infrastructure needs modernizing, there's less consensus on the solutions.

A big, and costly, problem to solve

The mission to plug more people into high-speed networks is a question of what strategy is best – not to mention a big federal investment.

There's a question over whether to prioritize areas of the country, mostly rural, where the physical infrastructure to support broadband hasn’t been built, or whether to focus first on urban and suburban areas where the larger problem is affordability.

Then there's the question of how best to bring down the cost of high-speed internet: continue long-term with federal subsidies for low-income households or push for more competition.

Raelin Powell attends her West Middle School classes remotely Oct. 15, 2020, in her family's apartment in Binghamton, N.Y. Her niece Phoenix Barnett, 3, is also enrolled in an online learning program.
Raelin Powell attends her West Middle School classes remotely Oct. 15, 2020, in her family's apartment in Binghamton, N.Y. Her niece Phoenix Barnett, 3, is also enrolled in an online learning program.

There's a disconnect about the cost of solving the problem, which Robinson of Microsoft said could approach $400 billion. Biden's original proposal would have provided $100 billion to address broadband, then a group of senators crafted a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that would devote $65 billion.

The biggest challenge appears to be measuring the size of the problem.

There are vast differences in calculating how many Americans lack broadband. Estimates range from 19 million to 120 million based on how the count is conducted.

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Bill Callahan, director of Connect Your Community, which is trying to expand high-speed service in Cleveland, said the scarcity of analysis and information on the scope of the nation’s broadband challenges could complicate efforts and waste tax money.

“Everyone’s getting ready to spend (billions) of additional money, and nobody’s even attempting to make a connection in terms of data between the expenditure of the money and the number of people actually getting service,” he said.

The president's proposal

In Biden's infrastructure and jobs plan he introduced this year, the president said subsidies might work in the short run, but he wants a more sustainable system for the long term.

The White House estimates as many as 40 million Americans lack access to broadband. The proposed $65 billion would target access, affordability and digital equity, according to a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. That includes installing fiber cables with a priority on local providers that don't have a profit incentive, requiring them to disclose prices to improve transparency and helping co-op internet providers better compete with private companies.

The White House blames the disproportionately high cost of internet to a lack of competition. About 65 million Americans live in an area with only one internet provider, according to the White House, and 200 million live in areas with no more than two.

Callahan said federal funds would be better used by helping communities set up nonprofit cooperatives that could lower the cost of service.

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“You are talking about a lot of money that is basically being paid by taxpayers to providers in order to write down the cost for some class of people. I‘m not sure how sustainable that is," Callahan said. "If you went out and invested (the same amount) to sustainably deliver cheaper service to many of those same people, would that be a better use of the money? My guess is in many cases it would."

>> Interactive Map: See how broadband access compares across the U.S.

Biden's American Jobs Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure proposal he endorsed are short on details regarding how broadband expansion would be implemented. Those issues are likely to be ironed out as Congress keeps hammering away at the legislation.

“Everyone compares it to electrification of the country,” Denson said. “That’s kind of how we see broadband. It has to be a huge partnership with public and private. We’re going to have to be inventive and creative and really work together. These are businesses, providers aren’t there to give it to you for free.”

Wealthy access, poor access

Broadband, or high-speed service, is defined as the ability to download data at a rate of 25 megabits per second and to transmit at least 3 megabits per second.

Nationwide, the average county reports broadband access for 77% of its residents, according to the FCC. Microsoft’s data reports a dimmer view of actual usage: 28% of residents in each county have such speed, on average.

The difference is the FCC measures whether a particular area offers broadband. If one household uses broadband, the data assumes everyone else in that area, usually a census block, also has it. The Microsoft data tracks actual usage and is considered a better representation of the country’s profile.

Vice President Kamala Harris takes part in a discussion of broadband internet at the New Hampshire Electric Co-op in Plymouth on April 23.
Vice President Kamala Harris takes part in a discussion of broadband internet at the New Hampshire Electric Co-op in Plymouth on April 23.

The two sources paint a very different picture of the landscape. The FCC said 1,210 counties – about a third – have greater than 90% coverage. Microsoft said only 16 counties are in that position. The single largest group of counties falls into the 10%-20% range, according to the USA TODAY analysis of Microsoft data.

Sierra County, New Mexico, for example, is listed as having 78% coverage, according to the FCC. But only 14% of the population, on average, actually uses it, based on the Microsoft data.

Bruce Swingle can attest to the lower number. As the city manager for Truth or Consequences (the seat of Sierra County), he's seen how a lack of reliable broadband made it difficult to teach children and quickly dispatch first responders to emergencies during the pandemic.

Even before COVID-19 struck, the lack of high-speed internet undermined the accuracy of some diagnoses at Sierra Vista Hospital, which was forced to reschedule dozens of clinic appointments and transport patients to Las Cruces more than an hour away.

Swingle said the federal government should stop using the FCC data and base its policy decisions on the grimmer reality painted by the Microsoft numbers. Not doing so could direct resources "in the wrong place" and worsen the nation's digital divide.

"The areas that have high-speed internet, for the most part your cities and your metropolitan cities, they will continue to grow," he said. "So that big disparity in service between the rural and the urban areas is just going to get greater and greater, and that's just going to continue the rapid decline of the economic opportunities in the rural part of the country."

What’s clear is the role wealth plays, even among suburban counties sitting right next to each other.

Take the Atlanta suburbs:

In Clayton County, where the median household income is $45,778, 41% have broadband, according to Microsoft data. The four counties surrounding Clayton – all wealthier – have higher rates of connectivity: Fulton (median income: $64,787) has 73% high-speed coverage; Fayette (median income: $87,282) has 65% coverage; Henry (median income: $68,609) has 57% coverage; and DeKalb (median income: $59,280) has 55% coverage, according to the USA TODAY analysis.

Even in individual cities or counties, wide variations are evident.

Todd Mehrkens of Hager City, Wis., lives near the Mississippi River in a rural area where the internet service was slow.
Todd Mehrkens of Hager City, Wis., lives near the Mississippi River in a rural area where the internet service was slow.

In Cleveland, it's not hard to identify the pockets where residents remain on low-speed connections.

Look at "the poverty map, the traditional red-lining map, the housing problem map, the areas of high tenancy map. All those maps look just like that (broadband) map," Callahan said. "Anybody familiar with the city looks at it and says, ‘Yup, poor people.’”

The impact of low speeds

A lack of reliable, high-speed internet has both a practical and profound impact, said Denson with Connected Nation. Communities need access to broadband for remote learning, teleworking and telehealth. Seniors and children may feel less isolated if they’re able to connect with people online, she said.

“People who are dealing with depression or issues in the mental challenges or that type of thing where they need therapy, they’re more likely now to use it if they have telehealth access," Denson said. "Try to fill out a resumé without a computer and broadband access. It can help from job search to actually landing that position. It can help with being able to work from home when you need to – say if there are weather or child care issues.”

People's ability to sell goods and services, start a business, work remotely or trade on the stock market – all pillars of e-commerce – are directly affected by how fast their internet connection is.

“If you have access to internet, you can access that global market whether you want to run your own business or whether you want to be able to work for a large business in Silicon Valley,” Denson said.

A Los Angeles Unified School District student attends an online class at the Boys and Girls Club of Hollywood on Aug. 26. The facility is open for children whose parents must leave home to work. There is no charge. Snacks and lunch are provided.
A Los Angeles Unified School District student attends an online class at the Boys and Girls Club of Hollywood on Aug. 26. The facility is open for children whose parents must leave home to work. There is no charge. Snacks and lunch are provided.

There are programs to help.

In May, the Biden administration began distributing monthly subsidies of up to $50 to low-income households (and $75 on tribal lands) to help cover broadband expenses. The Emergency Broadband Benefit, created by Congress in December in a wide-ranging government funding bill, provided eligible recipients a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer or tablet from participating providers if they contribute $10 to $50 toward the purchase price.

The $3.2 billion program signed up more than 2 million households in its first three weeks.

Microsoft's Airband Initiative kicked off in 2017 by targeting rural areas of the country such as Apache County, Arizona, where only 7% use the internet at broadband speeds. As part of its effort to address racial inequality, it's zeroing in on eight cities – Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, El Paso, Los Angeles, Memphis, Milwaukee and New York City – where service is available but often unaffordable to minority households in many of neighborhoods.

In New York City, 55% of people use the internet at broadband speeds, according to Microsoft.

“The reality is that we suffered a pandemic that is particularly acute in urban centers where people have access but were not adopting," Robinson said. "Affordability is a huge issue, not only in urban centers but also in rural areas. Once you get access, you’re still not guaranteed that people will actually adopt services.”

Lawmakers have begun paying attention. In April, Democrats and Republicans in the House who make up the Problem Solvers Caucus unveiled an eight-year, $1.25 trillion infrastructure package that would modernize not only traditional transportation such as roads, bridges and rail but would also address broadband.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., who co-chairs the caucus, said a lack of high-speed internet touches all facets of American life.

"You name it. Education with kids not being able to get online to learn. Telemedicine with people, especially with substance abuse disorders and mental health issues that were being compounded by the quarantining (if) they didn't have access," he said. "Our broadband vulnerabilities were laid bare during COVID, and I think it woke up a lot of people that probably weren't tracking this as closely as they should have been."

Schools feel it worse

The pandemic exacerbated the divide between rich and poor, and white people and people of color, especially when it comes to schooling. Students from low-income households, already behind their middle- and high-income peers, found themselves falling further behind.

Assistant Principal Monifa Tippitt distributes a Chromebook Nov. 10, 2020, at Chestnut Ridge Middle School in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y.
Assistant Principal Monifa Tippitt distributes a Chromebook Nov. 10, 2020, at Chestnut Ridge Middle School in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y.

Common Sense, a nonprofit educational advocacy group, found that as many as 16 million students, disproportionately in Southern states, lack home internet access or necessary devices. Of those, Black, Hispanic and Native American students together represent 54%, although they are 40% of the overall student population.

A study in June 2020 by Fresno State University in California predicted that the average student would lose 6.8 months of learning because of online education. The numbers climb to 9.2 months and 10.3 months among Hispanic and Black students, respectively, and 12.4 months for low-income students, groups that tend to have lower access to high-speed Internet.

Other studies have shown that students unable to access the internet at home have a lower grade point average, which is associated with lower earnings over an individual’s lifetime.

The White House proposed that Congress prohibit “digital red lining” in which broadband providers historically invest less in low-income and minority communities, producing a digital divide. A Pew Research poll this month found Hispanic adults (65%) and Black adults (71%) in the USA are less likely to have access to broadband at home than the 80% of white adults.

When the pandemic forced the closure of schools in March 2020, residents of tiny Thompson Falls in western Montana found how deeply – and harshly – a lack of broadband affected their economically challenged community where 80% of the 450 K-12 students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

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Without high-speed internet, the school system resorted to pen and paper in the form of instructional packets distributed weekly to families during the last quarter of the 2019-20 academic year, Thompson Falls Schools Superintendent Bud Scully said. Because of long distances and parents who had to work, many students didn't show up to pick up the packets. It was a lost period, he said.

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"If you don’t have the highest-speed service in your areas, you’re doing a disservice to your kids," he said. "Every minute they have to wait to download or get feedback on a problem is wasted educational time."

Fearing a repeat, the school system used federal COVID-19 relief money to buy inexpensive laptops for every student and is upgrading its Wi-Fi network speed. That will make it easier for Thompson Falls to offer an online Spanish course this fall in a county where only 4% of residents use high-speed internet, according to Microsoft data.

School systems around the USA went to great lengths to keep children connected during the pandemic.

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Topeka, Kansas, provided hot spots on school buses and parked them in locations for students to walk to, distributed maps of community businesses where families could tap into Wi-Fi and collaborated with libraries for digital books and community access to library broadband.

Given the poverty of the district – 73% of the roughly 13,000 students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch – Topeka Schools Superintendent Tiffany Anderson told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee this year that those extraordinary steps were necessary because teachers didn't have reliable broadband to teach from home, hundreds of homeless students needed hot spots and many other students, especially English language learners, had speeds too slow to adequately access lessons and learning materials.

"If you don't have broadband, how are you going to access school?" she told lawmakers.

In a speech last month in La Crosse, Wisconsin, touting the bipartisan infrastructure deal, Biden said $65 billion for broadband expansion would ensure “every American home” has high-speed internet – including the 35% of rural homes that lack connection.

“Tens of thousands of Wisconsin kids got left behind,” Biden said, referring to about 82,000 Badger State students who attended school remotely during the pandemic despite a lack of reliable high-speed internet. “Did you ever think here in America that kids would have to sit in a fast-food parking lot just to do their schoolwork and homework."

The USA has the second-most- expensive broadband costs for consumers out of 35 counties analyzed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation, the White House noted, trailing only Mexico.

"It isn't a luxury. It's now a necessity, like water and electricity," Biden said in Wisconsin. "This deal would provide for it for everyone, while bringing down the cost of internet service across the board."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden trying to erase 'digital divide' with high-speed internet access