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Rural areas caught in the digital divide

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

Walk down any busy street in any American city and it's easy to see how "connected" we've all become. We're in an age in which a wireless store occupies every street corner and more than 45 million Americans carry a tiny but powerful "smartphone" computer in their pockets.

This is all music to my ears. For years, the civil rights community has worked to bridge the persistent "digital divide" that strands a disproportionate number of African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities on the wrong side of America's high-tech future.

We've helped advance initiatives to reduce urban neighborhood "redlining" as broadband providers build out their long awaited high-speed upgrades. We've played a crucial role in providing computers and wiring for public schools and libraries. And most recently we've worked to develop tech training programs aimed at urging adoption of broadband in communities in which too few Americans are able to take advantage of this vital tool.

Yet even as urban areas are beginning to see real improvement in availability and adoption of broadband, access in our nation's rural areas remains paltry and at times appears intractable. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 12 million homes lack access to even the most basic high-speed services, and the majority of these homes are in rural areas that too many in private industry often see as too expensive, too risky or not profitable enough to build out and serve.

This lack of access directly impacts the 4.4 million African Americans living in rural areas and farms in America. Imagine raising children in an area where they cannot use the Internet's vast resources to help with homework. Or consider the billions of dollars in lost economic opportunities that the lack of broadband infrastructure means in depressed rural areas that cannot attract businesses.

Lack of high-speed Internet is particularly harmful for African American-owned farms and ranches. Just 34 percent of African-American farmers have Internet access, according to the U.S. Census. That means that the vast majority of African American farmers aren't able to take advantage of online suppliers that offer better prices on seed, equipment and feed or reaching a global marketplace for their goods. Nor are they taking advantage of countless government services offered online.

It's a problem the federal government has been working to address, with mixed results. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has distributed nearly $2 billion in low-interest loans since 2002 under the Farm Bill Broadband Loan program, which Congress intended to fund high-speed Internet infrastructure projects in unserved areas. Unfortunately, as documented by the Department's inspector general, much of this loan money has been targeted not at the unserved areas that need the most help but at areas that already have broadband services available.

The USDA is now considering new rules permitting loans to flow to areas where as many as three broadband providers already serve the same community. This is a step in the wrong direction. The USDA is authorized to loan more than $300 million in Farm Bill Broadband funds this year alone, and it is crucial that we ensure that the

Department prioritize building infrastructure that reaches the millions living in unserved rural areas.

The USDA needs to reform this loan program, refocusing it on serving not areas with existing broadband infrastructure but truly unserved regions. USDA's Community Connects infrastructure program, which has successfully provided grants in small communities that have no broadband infrastructure, is a model for how USDA can accurately target these much-needed funds where the impact will be greatest. Alternatively, USDA could use these funds for programs that aim to increase adoption in areas that already have broadband.

For more than 20 years, we've worked to close this digital divide, and we're making progress. Connecting the late adopters requires laser-like focus to ensure that we don't squander a single resource. If agency officials cannot fix the Farm Bill Broadband Loan program, Congress should step in to improve the loan requirements or redirect the money to more effective programs.

Hilary O. Shelton is director of the NAACP Washington Bureau and senior vice president for advocacy and policy.