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It Takes a Village: Solving the Broadband Adoption Problem in Rural America

It will take more than infrastructure to get rural and tribal communities online.

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Marguerite Reardon
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Orleans County in New York

Elizabeth Carpenter/Orleans Digital Literacy Initiative
This story is part of Crossing the Broadband Divide, CNET's coverage of how the country is working toward making broadband access universal.

When the world shut down two years ago forcing millions to live their lives online, people lacking  broadband access or the skills to get online were essentially left out of day-to-day life. With stores, offices and classrooms closed, they weren't able to shop, go to school or work, or even to see a doctor. 

The problem was especially hard for rural communities, like Orleans County on the south shore of Lake Ontario in western New York state. Like much of rural America, Orleans County, population 41,000, suffered from a lack of access to broadband infrastructure. 

For nearly a decade, the county pursued state and federal funds to help improve access, but progress was slow. And as COVID-19 pandemic-related closures grew, the gaps in infrastructure and digital literacy were magnified. 

It was a crisis that pushed the federal government to act. Federal COVID relief money began flowing to the region, sparking a $3.2 billion investment in fixed wireless broadband to blanket the entire county. But access was only one part of the problem. As the pandemic dragged on and more people needed to rely on the internet for everyday activities, it became clear that people were still being left behind. 

"We were getting calls from people who didn't know what telemedicine was and they needed help accessing it," said Robert Batt, executive director for the Orleans County Cornell Cooperative Extension. The partnership between county, state and federal governments through Cornell University provides educational opportunities to people throughout the county. "People were really interested in online grocery ordering and delivery, but couldn't figure out how to do it." 

Batt said the shift to online was especially difficult for the county's elderly residents who were too vulnerable to the virus to leave their homes for daily tasks like going to the grocery store. Groups and institutions already serving the community, like libraries, did their best to provide Wi-Fi hotspots and to field basic requests for digital help, but it wasn't enough, he said. 

That's when Batt and others running nonprofit organizations in the area, such as the United Way and the local YMCA, got together to apply for a private COVID relief grant to help address the digital literacy gaps. Through a three-month assessment of community needs, they realized they had to not only teach the most novice of internet users, but also support people who, though already online, still struggled with technology. This included everything from helping people buy and set up their first computers to assisting parents with tech issues associated with online school. 

In August, Batt and his colleagues launched the Orleans Digital Literacy Initiative to train volunteers with organizations already supporting the community to offer tech support. For instance, a Meals on Wheels volunteer trained as a mentor may help an older adult add apps to his cellphone to use Instacart or to listen to podcasts. 

"We had a gentleman a couple weeks ago who wanted to do his taxes online for the first time," Batt said. "Then there was this sweet 90-year-old woman whose children had helped her buy a computer. We taught her how to send her first email."

He said the support isn't just for elderly and new internet users, either. There are digital mentors in the community who help parents with their kids' devices. 

"Then there was the New Year's Eve urgent message I got from a mother who needed some parental controls on all her kids' devices," Batt said. 

It's not just about access 

The digital divide has dogged policy makers for decades. In spite of billions of dollars spent every year by the federal government to get more Americans throughout the US connected, there are still at least 19 million Americans who don't have access to broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission. That number is likely an underestimate, the FCC admits, given that the maps the government uses to determine who has service and who doesn't are grossly inaccurate. 

The effort is part of a larger trend to broaden digital equity and inclusion, especially in rural and tribal communities, where in addition to having less access to broadband infrastructure there's a gap in broadband adoption between rich and poor.

In June, the Pew Research Center published a report stating that roughly four in 10 adults with incomes below $30,000 a year do not have home broadband services or a desktop or laptop computer. But among adults in households earning $100,000 or more a year, those technologies are nearly ubiquitous.

Families with lower incomes face the biggest obstacles in navigating an increasingly digital world. This disparity in online access perpetuates what's been called the "homework gap," or the gap between school-age children who have access to high-speed internet at home and those who don't. In 2015, 35% of lower-income households with school-age children did not have a broadband internet connection at home, according to a Pew Research Center analysis

While some families are unconnected because broadband simply isn't available, many don't have access even when it is available, because they can't afford the service or they lack devices like laptops to connect to home broadband. While there are programs available to help make broadband more affordable, people often need help finding out if they qualify or signing up. 

These barriers to broadband adoption have been studied for years mostly in urban settings, where broadband is largely available. But experts such as John Horrigan, senior fellow at Benton Institute on broadband and society, said the same issues exist in rural and tribal lands. Building the networks is just one piece of bridging the digital divide, Horrigan said. It's also vital to make service affordable and giving people the support and skills to access the technology. 

It's all part of last year's $65 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act spending package, which included $42 billion for getting infrastructure built in places where it's not. Another $14.2 billion goes toward creating a permanent $30-a-month subsidy program to help low-income Americans afford service. There's also an additional $2.75 billion for digital equity and inclusion efforts, which could be used to fund community-based initiatives to help get people signed up for and using broadband, such as the one in Orleans County. 

"If you look at rural broadband adoption by income, you find that lower-income individuals and families have lower broadband adoption rates," Horrigan said. "So cost relief is definitely needed, but you also need those digital navigation services; those wraparound services that not only help get these people signed up for the subsidies but also teach them basic digital skills and help them troubleshoot problems."

Digital navigators 

While the federal government's digital equity money is certainly a step in the right direction, there's plenty of need for other funding sources. Some private companies have already begun stepping up. Last week, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a small nonprofit working to promote digital inclusion and equity, announced it had received a $10 million grant over the next four years from Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google, to create the National Digital Navigator Corps. The framework will help train community organizations to support digital inclusion efforts in their community through one-one-one support and education. 

Starting this spring, NDIA will identify and fund digital navigator programs in 18 rural and tribal community organizations to help people connect to the internet, obtain appropriate devices and become digitally literate.

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The NDIA, which started in 2015, began piloting the digital navigator framework with the Salt Lake City Public Library in October 2020. Library staff and volunteers were trained to offer phone support for a slew of digital needs including home connectivity, tech support, skill building and device access. 

"Libraries have been doing digital equity work for decades," said Shauna Edson, technology and digital manager for the Salt Lake City Public Library in Utah. "They were one of the first places where people went to access the internet if they didn't have it at home. But the digital navigator framework is really about how we extend that support for home broadband."

Angela Siefer, executive director for the NDIA, said the pilot in Salt Lake City built the foundation for the program. It's also been adapted for other cities, like Philadelphia and Austin, Texas, to help bring one-on-one tech support to underserved communities. Now through the Google grant, the effort is being expanded to rural and tribal communities. 

"When access to the internet, a computer and tech support keeps a community member from education, work, health care and all the necessities of life, it's heartbreaking," she said. "We must address any and all barriers to digital equity. This is what digital navigators do -- weave digital support into our social safety net."

Trust and money are key

Siefer said that Google's investment is critical when it comes to scaling this effort in rural areas where it can be more expensive to put boots on the ground to reach large numbers of people. 

In a blog post announcing the funding, Kent Walker, president for Global Affairs at Google, said it's why Google decided to support NDIA and its digital navigator program. "Where you live shouldn't be a barrier to connecting to the world."

Horrigan emphasized the importance of leveraging trusted organizations. His research on programs like Comcast's Internet Essentials found that low-income households are especially leery about outreach from internet service providers because they worry programs to help make service more affordable are a marketing ploy or scam with prices jumping after six months. 

He acknowledged that providing this level of support is expensive. 

"It's not enough to say you have a partnership. It has to become somebody's job at the library or within a community organization," he said. "And you can't just hope they find resources to create those positions. There has to be funding."

Batt agrees that even marketing to and reaching out to the unserved internet community are challenging for cash-strapped community organizations. 

"It's expensive to reach the correct audience when they don't have internet," he said. "We're lucky we still have a local penny-saver, so a lot of our ads and tech tips go in there." 

Still, Batt said, it's important work, especially as broadband service is finally getting built.

"It looks like we're really close to everyone finally having internet access in our county," he added. "So we want to make sure people in our community can afford it and that they have the skills to use it."

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