Digital equity, one mile of cable at a time

The state of West Virginia’s population declined 3.3 percent in the past decade — a greater exodus than any other state in the nation — in part due to the lack of internet.

“If you look at broadband maps, it’s no surprise that our most rural and most coal-impacted communities often have the poorest internet service,” says Natalie Roper, broadband coordinator for Generation West Virginia, a state organization that aims to attract and retain young residents in West Virginia. “That’s limiting our opportunities to diversify those economies and limiting conversations about what additional industries can thrive in those parts of the state. Too many people feel like they have to leave the state to access economic opportunities and find great jobs.”

As West Virginia’s coal industry continues to wane, new economic sectors are moving in to fill the void, like clean energy and information technology. But these sectors rely on good internet access. 

The pandemic, too, made connectivity more important than ever. To limit the spread of COVID-19, kids attended schools virtually, remote work became commonplace across many industries, and telehealth took off. To do things like shop for groceries, attend church, or see a therapist in the midst of a pandemic, people turned to the internet. But in West Virginia, internet speeds actually got slower during the pandemic due to increased demand—the download speeds dropped 17 percent.

While federal funding for broadband is available, “it’s really challenging for those communities to go after that funding,” Roper says. “Federal grants are complex, technical, and require a lot of local capacity.” That’s why Generation West Virginia, in partnership with the Benedum Foundation and a statewide initiative with the West Virginia Department of Economic Development’s Broadband Office, is working hard to bring broadband to the rural places that need it. They’re currently at work on a 3-year plan, targeting 18 outlying counties across the state to help communities secure funding and streamline the process for broadband installation—one mile of cable at a time.

Beyond West Virginia, the pandemic marked a widespread reversing trend for rural districts across the country: People left cities in droves, bringing remote jobs to towns farther afield. This shift could help revitalize rural communities, as long as they have reliable, affordable internet. That infrastructure would enable these communities to deploy clean energy projects, remote businesses, and other forms of infrastructure that can make them even more attractive places for more people to live.

Bridging the digital divide

The great chasm between those who have access to the internet and computers and those who do not is what’s called the digital divide. According to the Federal Communications Commission’s latest report, 14.5 million Americans still do not have access to internet service at the current standard: download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 megabits per second. (Slower services, like dial-up or cellular hotspots, cannot transmit data as fast as fiber-optic cables can.) 

The good news is the divide is closing. The gap between urban and rural Americans with access to broadband service has dropped nearly 50 percent since 2016, according to the FCC.

The recently passed infrastructure package  promises to pour $65 billion into providing affordable, high-speed internet to all Americans. And last year, Congress approved $7 billion in funding for broadband distribution as part of a COVID-19 relief package.

Earlier this year, Vice President Kamala Harris visited the headquarters of the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative in Plymouth, New Hampshire, to discuss expanding high-speed broadband internet across the state, likening it to rural electrification in the 1930s.

“We have a legacy of doing this work in America. We have a legacy of saying, ‘We’re going to have a national commitment to making sure everyone has access to the basic things they need,’ and now in the year 2021, that’s broadband,” Harris said. 

Achieving digital equity

Even with access to broadband internet, affordability is often a challenge: The Pew Research Center found, in 2021, that financial concerns were the primary barrier to adoption of broadband services, with 45 percent of the people without broadband at home citing the high cost of a subscription.

Take North Carolina, for example. An estimated 1.1 million households in the state don’t have high-speed internet in their homes. Of those, about one-third don’t have access to broadband, while the rest may have access but can’t afford it or don’t subscribe. There’s a racial divide, too. In North Carolina, 76 percent of white households subscribe to the internet; Latino households are at 68 percent subscribed; Black at 64 percent; and Native American at 57 percent.

“It’s great if I can run a fiber line by your house, but if you can’t afford it, or if you don’t have a laptop, or you don’t have the digital skills, that fiber line is of no use to you,” says Nate Denny, deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity with the North Carolina Department of Information Technology. “We knew this was a problem before we fell into a global pandemic, but COVID has really brought it home.”

The state is also making residents aware of federal subsidies of $50 a month through the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBBP) for qualifying low-income households so that at least 80 percent of North Carolina households are able to subscribe to broadband service. The EBBP will transition Dec. 31 to the new Affordable Connectivity Program, with nearly $14 billion in funding, that was created as part of President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure package. It reduces the benefit to $30 per month to help households afford access to high-speed internet service.

“Broadband services are so key to everything we do today. It’s an absolutely critical tool for economic development, education, and telemedicine,” Denny says. “But it’s not just the internet plan. It’s also tackling that affordability and digital literacy element, focusing on the ability of the end user to take advantage of that service once it’s in.” 

Connectivity opens doors

Starting around 2013, coal mines began to shut down in Colorado’s North Fork Valley, a collection of small, pastoral towns along the state’s Western Slope. More than a thousand people lost their jobs, and the towns of Delta and Montrose were shrinking in population—declining by around 1.5 percent a year at the same time that the state as a whole was growing in population by 4.8 percent annually. And unemployment numbers in these towns were 61 percent higher compared to elsewhere in Colorado.

“Even before coal shut down, we were working with our communities to figure out what were the biggest barriers to economic development in our region, and broadband felt like one of the biggest impediments,” says Michelle Haynes, executive director of Region 10, a nonprofit organization supported by local and county governments that aims to build strong communities across six counties in western Colorado. “Businesses were leaving the area because of a lack of broadband.”

In Gunnison County, there was no backup system, so when internet service would go out, emergency dispatch services would shut down, gas stations and banking systems would go offline. 

Region 10 started implementing a broadband plan around 2015, and they’re now about 80 to 90 percent through that original plan, with help from government funding and various partners, including the Delta Montrose Electric Association, which donated more than $2 million worth of assets and a long-term capital lease on fiber-optic cable. Most houses in the area now have broadband access that people can afford. 

A local startup, called Lightworks Fiber, began winning contracts from the local electric cooperative to expand broadband cable, and they’ve created more than 100 jobs, including hiring many laid-off mine workers, to help build those cables. 

Now seven years into the broadband project, things are starting to look up in the region. During the pandemic, towns like Montrose were able to attract remote workers looking to get out of the city and also retain current residents who were able to access remote jobs.

“We’re starting to see recovery,” Haynes says. “Usually, being in a rural area during a recession isn’t great. But during the pandemic, we saw people come into our communities, and more people working remotely. We’ve had a shift in housing prices, a shift in jobs. We’re still looking at ways to diversify our economy and looking for ways to make a more sustainable and diverse economy. But broadband has created a lot of that equity to make it possible.”

The Just Transition Fund is on a mission to create economic opportunity for the frontline communities and workers hardest hit by the transition away from coal. JTF is guided by a belief in the power of communities, supporting locally-led solutions and helping elevate the voices of transition leaders.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Digital equity, one mile of cable at a time on Dec 7, 2021.