Congress recently passed an infrastructure deal that includes $65 billion to expand fast broadband internet access in rural communities. Economists warn that the financial health of rural America will be vital to the U.S. economy over the next 50 years, and lawmakers who were pivotal in passing this bill hope that a tech boom can help close an ever-widening economic gap between rural regions and cities.
The Rural America Problem
The current estimate is that one out of four households in rural America lack access to a satellite internet service. That amounts to a staggering number of adults and children with no access to high-speed internet, and to put this into perspective, consider that the Federal Communications Commission categorizes an internet service as broadband if it is able to provide 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. The FCC estimates that the average household needs more along the lines of 100 Mbps download, and internet service providers across the country are increasing upload speeds after pandemic lockdowns revealed how inadequate the current speeds were for video conferencing.
Funding for Broadband in Rural America
The need to expand broadband availability in rural America has been an ongoing discussion for more than a decade. Financial motivation simply does not exist for the private ISPs to fund these endeavors, so the funding must come from the federal government. The COVID-19 pandemic was really the turning point when politicians on both sides of the aisle were prepared to deliver real solutions.
The lockdowns affected everyone, but it was particularly difficult for rural communities where people could not work from home or attend school remotely or faced numerous challenges in doing so. The first response to these issues was the CARES act, which includes funding for $100 million in broadband-related grants along with $3.2 billion for the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which is designed to temporarily close the availability gap for all low-income Americans regardless of where they live.
The $1 trillion dollar infrastructure bill recently passed by Congress aims to do much more as it includes $65 billion to improve Internet access throughout the U.S. This funding will be distributed to states via large grants with some caveats regarding ISP pricing, billing and so forth.
America Has a Tech Talent Shortage
Economists have urged politicians to invest in rural America as a way to invest in the future of the U.S. economy. The assertion is that rural America will be pivotal to the U.S. economy over the next 50 years in a way that it has never been since the Industrial Revolution. The U.S. is experiencing a shortage of tech talent right now, and that problem is only going to get bigger in the years ahead. Economists see the 37 million work-age rural Americans as the solution to that problem.
Changing Our City-Centric Perspective
Closing the digital divide is not the total solution. Economists warn that without a rural tech presence, the U.S. could lose $160 billion in annual revenue by 2030. While 15 percent of the American workforce lives in a rural area, only 5 percent of technology jobs are located in those areas. Consider also that almost 50 percent of Americans surveyed want to live in a rural area. Tech companies choose cities because of the resources that are available to them, and increasing the pool of capable workers may be the first step in making our rural communities more attractive destinations.
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