While the Federal Communication Commission estimates that 16 million people in rural America go without broadband Internet access, that number may be far higher – some estimates go as high as more than 150 million Americans lacking adequate broadband access, according to a new report. 

“Even when access is available, that does not automatically translate to adoption. When it is available only 63% of rural residents subscribe to home broadband,” according to the new research, appearing in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 

“Additionally, lack of competition means that 36% of rural households do not have a choice of providers and rural residents pay over 30% more for subscriptions (already a national average of $84/month) than urban Americans.”

Researchers Nick Mathews, assistant professor of digital journalism at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and Christopher Ali, the Pioneers Chair in Telecommunications and Professor of Telecommunications in the Bellisario College of Communications at Pennsylvania State University, conducted 19 interviews with families in a rural county in the East Coast who lacked adequate broadband connections. 

“One of the things we looked at was what people were doing, while they were waiting for connection, while they were waiting while using the Internet, and what they were waiting for in a better connection as well. And very broadly, what we found out is that people just have this utter sense of hopelessness, like they’re out of control. The situation is out of their control,” Mathews said in an interview with the Daily Yonder.”

In one case study, a family became a “second-shift family,” meaning they often slept at unconventional hours in order to wake up during times that the connection would be faster in the middle of the night. In the interview, one teenager would get home from school, do her homework, eat dinner and go to bed at 7 p.m., so she could awake at 3 a.m. to be able to use the Internet. During the summer, she would sleep all day so she could use the Internet at night. Eventually, the parents started following the teenager’s lead. 

“Most of our friends thought we were crazy. I ended up becoming friends with a lot of gamers that I worked with because … they were up gaming all night. They would be messaging me in the middle of the night, and I’d be answering them. They’re like, “You’re old; you should be asleep,” the mother said, according to the research. “I’m like, ‘No, this is the only time I can get good internet.”

Mathews said that particular anecdote was one of the most fascinating he had heard during his time doing field work. 

“It was astounding,” Mathews told the Daily Yonder. “And so the mother saw the success that her daughter was having in this space, and that she was able to actually utilize and have fun and be entertained online. And so the mom started to run that schedule, too.”

Mathews said the digital divide builds upon other inequalities in the U.S., whether they are racial, related to wealth, or other types. 

“But in situations like this, in this county, you can’t buy your way out of it,” he added. “You can’t buy your broadband connection.”

In another instance, a woman was working from home during the pandemic and was not able to get adequate broadband service to use Zoom calls, so she was silenced during meetings, Mathews said. 

“When you cannot participate in a meeting, or in a conversation with colleagues or with supervisors, that limits your potential for a promotion, and anything along those lines,” he said. “So it is a really dire situation for some of these people.”

Another issue that Mathews and Ali studied was digital dignity, the idea that someone has the same access to a digital life as someone else. 

“These people in this county and these people without broadband access, they don’t [have digital dignity],” Mathews said. “They don’t have this sense of digital dignity because they do not live in the same way that we do and it’s a fact that is underappreciated, and, frankly, is taken for granted. Right? The idea that I can be talking to you on Zoom right now, or I can be looking up anything I want to right now is taken for granted by me. And I try not to, but it’s taken for granted by society in general. And there are millions of people who do not have this access, and they’re being left behind.”

Mathews said he hopes this research study and others will bring about greater awareness to the inequalities across the digital landscape. 

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