Science Notes

Policymakers Target Broadband Access To Tackle Rural/Urban Digital Divide

By Mikkela Blanton

April 2021

For most city dwellers and suburbanites in Colorado, there’s nothing particularly special or luxurious about being able to check email, hop on a Zoom call, get on social media, or read the news online — having access to the internet is not only expected, it’s also a given. But for those in more rural parts of the state, internet access isn’t a certainty at all. Nationwide, about 39% of Americans lack rural broadband access, and in Colorado, approximately 13% of rural households are living without access to broadband.

To be clear, “broadband” doesn’t just mean internet; instead, broadband specifically refers to upstream (a user uploading data to the internet) and downstream (a user downloading data from the internet) speeds, which are set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC defines broadband as 25 megabits per second (Mbps) down and three Mbps up. 

The connected/disconnected digital divide has left communities without access to essential services (especially troublesome during the COVID-19 pandemic), including telemedicine and remote learning; the ability to perform work remotely; and even an impaired ability to participate in things like modern politics, society, and culture. 

Despite advances in technology, a large number of Coloradans — particularly those in rural areas — don’t have reliable broadband access. Photo by Madrosah Sunnah on Unsplash

The Challenges 

There are multiple pieces to the rural broadband dilemma. 

First, laying wire is expensive, and even more expensive in rural areas, where fewer homes are served by the same amount of wire laid. The more customers in a given distance, the more economical it is to place wires. 

Distance also impacts how the technology works. Many rural areas are still served by copper wire as opposed to fiber-optic cables, which have distance limitations. With copper, signals are usually impaired after three miles, so access multipliers – a type of signal-amplifying equipment – must be installed, increasing the overall cost. 

Wireless broadband provided by satellites is another option, as it skirts the necessity of laying wire. But wireless is also expensive, and can be slower and less reliable. While data shows that about 98% of rural areas have access to some type of wireless connection, the vast majority of these connections aren’t fast enough to meet federal standards. Multiple devices being used in a single household also quickly drains broadband. 

State of the Policy 

Expanding rural broadband has bipartisan support, and is being prioritized at both the state and the national levels. Of the Biden Administration’s proposed $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, $100 billion would be devoted to connecting more rural communities to broadband. According to the White House, the $100 billion investment in rural broadband would: 

  • Build high-speed broadband infrastructure with a goal of 100% coverage
  • Promote competition amongst internet providers – which is important because in America, broadband costs are some of the highest amongst OECD countries, which means that even when the infrastructure exists, some customers can’t afford to connect – and require providers to disclose prices
  • Reduce the costs of broadband internet service 

State policymakers are also thinking about broadband. Colorado State Senator Kerry Donovan and Colorado State Representative Dylan Roberts are sponsoring SB21-60 – Expand Broadband Service. The bill would amend the definition of broadband network to increase speeds and would add a definition of “critically underserved” households. It would also require the Colorado Broadband Deployment Board, which provides grants through the state fund for broadband deployment in rural parts of the state, to reimburse certain Colorado households up to $600 each year for access to broadband. Eligible households include those with children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, or households with an income that is less than or equal to the federal poverty level or 30% of the area median income. The legislation would also require the board to identify critically underserved areas and solicit bids to serve those areas. 

The Bottom Line

Broadband access is now being compared to access to electricity – something that no American should go without. As efforts to expand coverage ramp up, the goal to reach 100% of the country with broadband may soon be satisfied.

Additional Resources


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