Iowa: Rural broadband, and the unknown costs of the digital divide

Ahead of the November 6 elections, CJR invited writers to spotlight stories that deserve closer scrutiny, in their states and beyond, before voters cast their ballots. Read other dispatches from “States of the Union” here.

The last time I almost died was in February. A late winter thaw had made me overconfident in the roads, and so I’d gone out in search of an abandoned pioneer church just outside of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. One hour into the journey and I was stuck on a dirt road, my Mazda caught in an icy rut as sleet came down in sheets. There was no one around for miles. My phone, which has the fanciest data plan Verizon can muster, had no service, no data. I couldn’t see any houses. There was no one to hear me scream.

According to US News and World Report, Iowa is the most connected state in the nation, which presumably means they have a high percentage of households with access to high-speed internet. But the data used for that analysis is deeply flawed. It is easy to find yourself completely unconnected from the wires and signals that pull us all together through our computers and mobile devices.

For those of us in America who are extremely online, it’s easy to think of the internet as the source of our problems—misinformation, Twitter bots, Russian hacking, social media stress. The real source, however, is the huge gap in information services. Despite bipartisan support on the issue, the crisis of America’s digital divide has failed to become a headline grabber or garner any real action from politicians as midterms approach. This information disparity undermines our democracy, hampers how we do journalism, and shapes how Americans interact with the news.

Reports of Iowa’s connectivity are greatly exaggerated, according to Ashley Hitt, director of GIS Services for the broadband advocacy nonprofit Connected Nation. The FCC requires providers to report their coverage areas as broken out by census blocks. In cities, these census blocks are often actual neighborhood blocks. But in rural areas they can be quite large. If just one house in that area is served by a provider, then the FCC considers the entire area connected. Hitt also points out that many providers, large and small, often overestimate their connectivity because they simply lack accurate, independently verified maps.

“I’ve been out in Iowa and heard people tell me that they can’t get internet,” says Hitt. “They can’t do their jobs. They can’t access medical files. Their grandkids won’t visit because they can’t get work done out there. But the government is telling them they have three internet providers and that’s just not the case.”

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Even the inaccurate data is dire. As of 2016, 39 percent of rural Americans lack access to high-speed broadband, compared to just four percent of urban Americans. Only 17 percent of rural Americans rely on their smartphones for internet, according to a PEW research poll. The internet that rural Americans do have is lower quality and more costly than it is for their urban counterparts. And all of this for a population that earns less than those in urban areas. To put this in perspective, rural America makes up 97 percent of America’s landscape and contains 19.3 percent of the population. The digital divide is compounded when you look at the difference in access on Tribal lands. The FCC reports that “63 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands (2.5 million people) lack access to high-speed broadband. And 85 percent of Americans living in rural areas around Tribal lands (1.7 million people) lack access.”

America is living with a caste system of digital inequality. And with the advent of 5G internet, the digital divide will only deepen if Iowa can’t catch up.

What’s at stake is more than just your grandma’s ability to access Facebook. “The cost of being disconnected is the highest it’s ever been,” says Tom Ferree, CEO of Connected Nation. “Connectivity means access to healthcare, education, job creation, and everything. Broadband has to be there to ensure the virility and sustainability of the community. Previously, the vitality of America was based on infrastructure—roads and highways. Now it’s broadband infrastructure. If people can’t access reliable internet in an affordable way, they will be relegated to industries that are stagnating. Or they will move.” Connectivity, Ferree adds, isn’t just for humans. The machines farmers use in the field to plant and harvest and monitor the crops all require connectivity. “This isn’t just about us,” says Ferree. “This is also about our food supply.”

Right now, Ferree states, “America is living with a caste system of digital inequality. And with the advent of 5G internet, the digital divide will only deepen if Iowa can’t catch up.” A report released last month by the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development calls broadband access as necessary for quality of life as “essential as water and electricity networks.”

 

THE DIGITAL DIVIDE is one of the few problems that gain bipartisan consensus. Broadband access has become an election issue in Michigan’s First Congressional District, in the contest between Republican US Rep. Jack Bergman and his Democratic challenger, Matt Morgan. Both politicians agree, Northern Michigan needs to expand broadband access. Similarly, both candidates in Colorado’s gubernatorial race, Jared Polis and Walter Stapleton, agree expanding broadband access is key to expanding opportunity and access in their state. But the bipartisan agreement is light on specifics and action. Brian Motley, who ran for city council in Indiana, made rural connectivity a key element of his platform; he lost, but his platform didn’t go unrecognized by the local paper or by the governor, who announced a toll road initiative to raise money for expanding broadband access. In Vermont, broadband access is such a huge issue many politicians have run on the platform, but very few have delivered. It’s also a key issue in Ohio, Tennessee, and New Mexico. The SPEED Act, introduced by a Republican US Senator from Missouri and intended to “streamline broadband infrastructure permitting,” has languished in committee. Meanwhile, the FCC has been trying to roll back subsidies to its Lifeline program, which provides money for expanding rural broadband access.

If an informed electorate is a vital part of our democracy, then we cheapen it by making access to information a privilege rather than a right.

Studies that examine the correlation between broadband access and voter turnout show an uneasy link between the two. Sometimes internet connectivity initially lowers voter turnout, and sometimes it has no effect. But what internet connectivity does for the democratic process is give disparate voices a platform. In a paper outlining the effects of the internet on voting, published through the Harvard Kennedy School, researchers argue that in the long run it enables increased participation in the democratic process for people who would otherwise be disenfranchised. Access to the internet is not just access to healthcare, education, and work; it’s also access to a platform for political action and a portal to political knowledge. In Western New York, Democratic congressional candidate Tracy Mitrano noted that many of her constituents aren’t able to access live streams of political debate. Broadband access helps bring the disenfranchised of America into the fold of public discourse.

What does this gap mean for journalists? It means me paying over $80 a month just for reliable internet to do my job in Cedar Rapids while my friend in Minneapolis only has to pay $39 for hers. It means rural Americans aren’t reading your hot takes. They aren’t paying attention to the minutiae of the Kavanaugh hearing that the internet class chatters over, nor do they know what Kanye said on Twitter. All that work that The New York Times does to uncover the reality of the president’s finances in a 15,000-word online report goes into a void. Unless news makes it to TV, the majority of Americans won’t see it or consider it. And what little does trickle out from the internet is treated as #fakenews. A Pew Study showed that only 18 percent of Americans trust national news organizations “a lot.” That trust is broken down across party lines. Twenty-seven percent of Democrats have a lot of trust in the news, compared to fifteen percent of Republicans.

If an informed electorate is a vital part of our democracy, then we cheapen it by making access to information a privilege rather than a right. Until the problem of access to information is solved for all Americans, your best efforts at pandering across the looming American divide is going unnoticed.

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Lyz Lenz is a writer based in Iowa. Her writing has appeared in Pacific Standard, Marie Claire, Jezebel, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @lyzl.