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Equitable Infrastructure, Democracy, and Why Private Industry Can’t Address the Digital Divide

Now, more than ever, vast amounts of digital information are instantly available to the public. And yet, accessing digital information and online services remains a challenge for those in areas without high-speed internet access. In this interview, Ann Eisenberg, Associate Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina and current Kluge Fellow, explained the important consequences of this access disparity and how Library resources are helping her explore the history behind America’s digital divide.

 

What is the digital divide between urban and rural communities?

The “digital divide” refers, in this context, to disparities in access to high-speed, high-quality internet between rural communities on the one hand and urban and suburban communities on the other. The extent of the divide depends on who you ask and what is being measured, but according to figures from the Federal Communications Commission, in 2019, roughly 99% of urban residents had access to the highest quality internet compared to a mere 83% of rural residents and 79% of residents of tribal lands. Given the known limitations in assessing broadband access, these percentages are likely overestimated.

Those figures mask disparities within urban communities, though, as many of the challenges facing rural communities are also present in under-invested urban areas. The divide also varies wildly from state to state. For example, Maine and North Dakota have only a very small difference between urban and rural high-speed internet access (with access very high in both), while New Mexico and Mississippi have urban/rural disparities much greater than the national percentages.

 

Why should we care about the digital divide—why is this issue important?

A high-quality internet connection at home is a critical tool for being able to participate in modern life. Internet has become even more important during the pandemic, when more of our lives started being conducted online. Internet is important not just for accessing information, but because of its many downstream uses. That is, internet is a gateway to other important services, activities, and opportunities, like telemedicine, school, work, and even a social life for many people. So internet is really a critical piece of modern infrastructure, but whether you have access to it largely depends on geography.

Internet and the digital divide are also important pieces of regional prosperity and economic development. I think of economic development as either going in an upward cycle or a downward one. When regions lack or lose infrastructure, like a hospital or an airport, it can exacerbate regional socioeconomic challenges. And by contrast, when a region is able to invest in and secure amenities like those institutions, or like high-speed internet, it can then attract new residents, companies, and opportunities, helping local governments balance their budgets and in turn fueling regional prosperity and quality of life. So addressing the digital divide is an important piece of the puzzle of rural communities’ capacity to thrive during a time when many of them are struggling with the loss of traditional, land-based livelihoods.

 

What is your approach to thinking about how we should bridge this divide? Are there tensions reflected in this divide that speak to current challenges American democracy faces?

I’m often told that infrastructure is too expensive to invest in and that rural communities in particular are too expensive. And I don’t buy it. I think this raises a fundamental question about what the purpose of government is. I would like for people to recognize that the lens of economic efficiency, or maximizing returns on investments, while not unimportant as an idea, is a lens that incorporates a particular set of values. That is, prioritizing efficiency is not a value-neutral approach to take to questions of governance and the provision of fundamental services throughout a society.

I’m thinking about the digital divide through alternative lenses and values, including justice, equity, sustainability, and human dignity. That doesn’t mean not being strategic or simply throwing bottomless amounts of money at the issue.

So I think whether we can tackle the digital divide depends on how we frame our assumptions and questions. My assumptions are that this is a basic need like electricity was a hundred years ago, that everyone deserves access to it, and that it’s the responsibility of government to facilitate that access. My question then is, how can government make it happen? Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 does task the FCC to take this on. But the persistence of disparities in access suggests we can do better.

 

How does legal history shed new light on the digital divide? What Library collections and resources have been most helpful in examining this research question?

I think a lot of scholars these days are turning toward New Deal-era policies as offering insights for how we can achieve modern infrastructure improvements. During that time in the early- to mid-twentieth century, there was political will to pursue infrastructure developments. Momentous achievements like near-universal electrification were actually accomplished. With congressional gridlock and other modern conflicts and crises, that seems almost unthinkable today. So I want to look back at those laws and policies, especially the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, to investigate how that progress was achieved in the hopes of making modern efforts more effective.

Several Library collections have proven very helpful; I’m a Digital Studies Fellow so am mostly accessing materials available through the Library online. I’m mainly using ProQuest Congressional Legislative Insight to read the conversations legislators were having about rural electrification in the 1930s. I also hope to make use of the Library’s access to the University of Illinois’s Farm, Field, and Fireside collection of weekly farm publications in the early twentieth century to understand how people viewed rural electrification at the time.

 

What lesson from the past speaks most loudly to you in terms of addressing the digital divide today? What does your research suggest the digital future of rural America will look like?

I keep getting stumped about people’s hope or conviction that the private sector, left to its own devices, has a central role to play in providing the basic necessities of life, given the private sector’s commitments to profit and the lack of democratic accountability surrounding it. I think in the early twentieth-century there was less of an attachment to the protection of some kind of fairy tale version of “free markets.” One senator advocating rural electrification in 1935 argued that Congress needed to step in and ensure electricity reached the countryside specifically because private electric utilities refused to serve places outside cities. The senator said that utilities had already picked up the “cream” of consumers, and so Congress had to step in to empower the “leaner” areas to get service. This reflected a commitment to at least one form of fairness, which is a value that maybe gets short shrift in political conversations today.

I think there is a lot of momentum toward bridging the digital divide. Everyone knows how important internet is. And I can envision the country getting to a point where people anywhere can easily hop online for whatever they need to do. But the pandemic was a stress test of our internet infrastructure in a way. The experiences with students struggling with quality connections for online school, even in urban areas, show that this important piece of our infrastructure could be doing better nationwide, despite what the FCC numbers say.

 

How can we follow the results of this Library research?

My research on this topic will be featured in my forthcoming book with Cambridge University Press, tentatively entitled, “Reviving Rural America: The Mythology of Inevitable Decline and the Progressive Vision Forward.” My other publications exploring law and rural community economic development, energy communities, environmental justice, and other questions of equity and sustainability can be found on my SSRN page.

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