As COVID-19 continues to affect much of the world, people’s daily activities have shifted online. But while urban areas generally have access to fast and affordable internet, many rural areas are left with fewer, often expensive and unreliable options. This gap is known as the digital divide.
This paper examines the digital divide in both Louisiana and Mississippi using data provided by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). It notes that while more than 90 percent of the urban population in both Louisiana and Mississippi have access to at least one provider of broadband internet, less than 65 percent of those in rural areas of both states have equivalent access.
The reasons for this disparity are complex, but the data reveals an interesting explanation: many people in Louisiana and Mississippi are not online because they don’t believe they need to be.
Better availability and adoption of broadband internet will require multiple solutions. One of the most important will be led by technology created by the private sector. Technologies like fixed wireless internet, low-orbit satellites, and 5G offer the potential for reaching rural areas at lower costs than burying miles of fiber.
Taking advantage of these technologies will require policies that remove barriers to their expansion. Reducing costs and deployment times for technologies like 5G will lead to faster deployment making these technologies available to consumers more quickly.
This paper lays out the following solutions to for policy makers to speed up deployment and adoption.
1. Work with the Federal Government on Broadband Mapping
With the federal government not expected to complete their new maps until 2022, understanding what parts of the state most in need of high-speed internet is key for lawmakers.
2. Reduce Costs and Application Times for 5G Infrastructure
5G offers immediate wireless solution to areas without access, making it easier to install the equipment will speed up availability to consumers.
3. Reduce Fees and Related Costs for Government Right of Ways
Government fees often make it difficult to reach rural areas, reducing these fees will make rural areas more desirable for investment.
4. Open State Infrastructure for Deployment
States have access to key infrastructure in rural areas, partnering with the private sector can lead to deployment in once unreached areas.
5. Pass “Dig Once’ and “One-touch Make Ready” Policies
Internet deployment costs can be greatly reduced when
taking advantage of state construction.
6. Standardize taxes and recurring fees
Broadband equipment should be taxes at the same rate regardless of what kind of internet access it is providing.
7. Work on education and adoption
Partnering with civil society groups can increase adoption of the internet and spur greater investment in previously unserved areas.
When the history of this moment is written, new technologies and the changes they brought will be noted, not the government policy. That said, there are important policy levers lawmakers can pull to help close the digital divide without spending billions. This paper is a guide for lawmakers to understand which levers to pull and which to leave untouched in this area.