Federal Broadband Policy Often Ignores Communities of Color

Federal broadband programs tend to assist rural areas because rural areas often lack a broadband option. A new report indicates this policy approach has unfortunate implications for non-white citizens without Internet.

by / June 23, 2020
Shutterstock/asharkyu

A new National Digital Inclusion Alliance report argues that the federal government’s policy framework for broadband funding is “structurally racist, discriminating against unconnected Black Americans and other communities of color.”

This conclusion is based on an analysis that examines home broadband connections by race. The report cites 2018 American Community Survey (ACS) data, which shows that non-white Americans are less likely than white Americans to have a home connection. Specifically, the ACS data indicate that about 10 percent of white Americans lack a home connection. For Black and Latino Americans, the number stands at about 18 percent and 14 percent, respectively. 

The report then delves into where federal broadband money goes and where people of different races without broadband tend to live. 

“Conscious or not, the objective effect of current policy is that broadband investment … is directed mostly to assisting non-Hispanic rural white people to get better Internet connections,” the report said. 

Although federal broadband programs have focused on serving rural areas for years, ACS data confirm that the United States has “more than three times as many urban as rural households living without home broadband of any kind.” 

The digital divide in urban areas is mostly due to affordability issues, the report said. But because cities tend to have at least one company providing broadband service within their boundaries, urban places are ineligible for federal funding. 

Thus, urban families that can’t afford broadband are left without a way to get connected at home. This fact comes with racial implications. 

“The majority of people living in households with no broadband in the nation’s largest cities and least rural counties — the places least likely to qualify for broadband infrastructure funding or any other federal digital inclusion assistance — are non-white, multi-racial and/or Hispanic or Latino,” the report said.

The report also compares the racial status of residents without broadband in the nation’s biggest cities and most rural counties. Although white people account for about 3 million of residents without broadband in the biggest cities and most rural counties, the picture is much different for their counterparts. 

“[T]here were seven times as many unconnected Black residents in the cities, and almost nine times as many unconnected people of color,” the report said. 

From a policy perspective, the report concludes that the federal government should continue to provide funding to areas where “existing networks don’t provide high-speed access for rural and tribal communities.” However, because the digital divide is just as great, if not greater, in urban areas, federal policy should also target unconnected communities in cities, the report said.   

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