Amid Rural Broadband Weak Spots, Nonprofits Offer Last-Mile Help

Broadband internet is a given in many cities and suburbs, but in rural areas, it’s harder to come by. But that’s not for lack of trying by a variety of nonprofit groups.

In a Pew study last year, 13 percent of respondents said they don’t use the internet, and while age was a factor, so too was location. Americans were far less likely to get online if they lived in a rural setting, rather than an urban or suburban one.

NeighborWorks America, a congressionally chartered nonprofit, noted in May that a lack of broadband access threatened the education and employment pictures for those living in rural areas. But work is being done on this front—and nonprofits are seen as key players in fixing problems with rural internet.

“Increasingly, nonprofits like NeighborWorks America members are partnering with others to close this gap, both to equip residents in their properties with the tools they need to support their families and as an often-overlooked component of comprehensive community development,” explained Pam Bailey, a senior writer for NeighborWorks, in a blog post.

Bailey cited the work of Eden Housing, a nonprofit in Hayward, California, to boost digital literacy in its rural region. Eden Housing, which builds and maintains affordable housing for lower-income families, found acquiring broadband was a financial hardship for residents, so it’s taking steps to provide it themselves through a program called Communities Wired!

Native Americans are another group with limited access to decent internet connections. The Federal Communications Commission reported earlier this year that 41 percent of Americans on tribal lands don’t have access to broadband.

Nonprofit groups working to change that include Native Public Media, which is taking part in an upcoming ICANN conference, and the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association. SCTCA’s Tribal Digital Village program has been active since 2001 and has connected more than half of tribal lands in San Diego County to broadband.

“When they made the reservation system in the federal government, they decided to put Indians where they thought nobody would want to be,” Matt Rantanen, SCTCA’s director of technology, told Ars Technica. “They sent them to locations at the base of mountains or out in remote areas where the nontribal population centers were, and they’re far away from communication centers, where it’s not advantageous to deploy infrastructure.”

In a recent report, FiveThirtyEight noted that Saguache County, Colorado, had the lowest level of broadband penetration in the entire country, with just 5.6 percent of adults having access to internet at 25-megabit-per-second download speeds and 3-megabit-per-second upload speeds. In comments to the website, Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of the Rural Broadband Association, noted that there was a political case to be made for improving broadband access.

“The more you create second-class citizens, the more we just continue to see some of these political divides,” Bloomfield said, adding that the most recent election highlighted the faults of this approach. “I think rural America kind of sat back and roared a little bit.”


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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