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The gap between those with and those without reliable internet access continues to grow. State and federal governments have set aside massive funding to provide the infrastructure needed to support digital access to rural America, but the improvement has been excruciatingly slow. Rural wireless internet is still on the wish list for many Americans.
For example, the US Congress passed the American Recovery and Investment Act (ARRA) in 2009. The ARRA set aside $120 billion for infrastructure projects, including plans to increase digital access for rural communities. 13 years later, more than 40 percent of counties in Appalachia have broadband internet connections available.
Devasting Impact Of Limited Rural Wireless Internet Access
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of digital services made it more difficult for rural Americans to access job search sites and online education. When schools across the country closed during the pandemic, children in rural areas were left without access to any education.
No Internet Meant No School During The Pandemic
Although remote education had limitations and many considered it a failure for American children, at least the rest of the country got something. Children living in Northern Maine, West Texas, Appalachia, and hundreds of other remote areas were completely isolated. They didn’t get educational services, but they were also cut off from community services that protected their health and safety, libraries, and keeping up with their friends.
Future Of Wireless Internet For Rural Areas
The future of Wireless Internet for Rural Areas is still uncertain. The Connect America Fund (CAF) is a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) project designed to subsidize network infrastructure construction or upgrades in rural communities. The program is well-funded, but critics argue that the bidding process favors companies least likely to build the needed networks in rural areas.
Current Government Grant Programs Are Not Working
According to Doug Dawson, Broadband Communities Magazine, the bidding process is broken for three reasons: large companies are favored, low-cost solutions are prioritized, and high-cost areas are avoided.
Examples listed by Dawson include Elon Musk’s Starlink, which received millions in CAF funding to launch satellites to provide wireless internet for rural communities. Dawson notes that Verizon and AT&T also submitted successful bids to upgrade their networks.
Updated networks and satellites help the situation for Americans who already have some access to telegraphic infrastructure, but very little for Americans in remote locations like Alaska where no infrastructure exists.
Little Hope For Closing The Digital Gap In Rural America
As Dawson notes, the geography in Alaska and Appalachia makes building infrastructure extremely expensive. Unlike Starlink, AT&T, or Verizon, providers applying for grants in these high-cost areas cannot risk losing grant funding. Therefore, their projects are at higher risk and less likely to reach completion. So they don’t even get the funding they need to start building the network infrastructure needed to support digital services.
More Action Needed
More action is needed on the state and federal levels. Governments need to pass legislation that provides the funding needed to the areas where wireless internet services are needed most.