Imagine a digitally equitable future. Here’s how to defeat the digital divide
Creating digital inclusion, even in rural America

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The digital divide in rural America is expansive, and the growing disparity is only getting worse.

In the United States, where over 30 million people reside in places without broadband infrastructure that offers minimally acceptable speeds, more than 35% of rural America doesn’t have access to reliable high-speed internet. In fact, four of the five counties in the U.S. with lowest levels of access to broadband are rural areas.

The fight to bridge the gap between those with high-speed internet access and those without it has been raging for years, but it’s become even more pressing since the COVID-19 pandemic showed that broadband is more than a luxury; it’s a necessity.

Measures have been taken recently that would enable digital equity in rural communities. But, before we can discuss how to go about solving the problem, we must first really examine the problem and why it matters.

What is digital equity?

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) defines digital equity as the “condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy.”

According to the NDIA, digital equity is essential for “civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services.” Per national data, the two populations most impacted by the digital divide are people of color in urban areas and rural communities.

Why does the digital divide exist?

The reasons for this disparity – particularly for rural areas – are twofold: affordability and accessibility.

Findings from the Digital Divide Council reveal that individuals with $75,000 annual incomes are 20 times more likely to access the internet than those with $30,000 annual incomes.

There are resources available to address accessibility. However, rural communities face other complications. The remote nature of these areas, which often consist of large distances between houses and limited roads, make it difficult to connect to broadband. In some rural areas, there’s no broadband or network access at all.

Then there’s the provider problem. Internet service providers aren’t receiving the desired return on investment (ROI), so they don’t prioritize laying fibers and offering broadband connections to these thinly populated areas.

Yet, as we’ve witnessed over the past few years, these communities can no longer afford to be cut off from broadband – not when it’s become essential for students to access vital resources and employees to work effectively from anywhere.

How to create digital inclusion

If digital equity is the end game, then digital inclusion is how you do it.

The NDIA calls digital inclusion the “activities necessary to ensure that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).” Digital inclusion consists of five parts:

  • Affordable and robust broadband internet
  • Internet-enabled devices that meet users’ needs
  • Access to digital literacy training
  • Quality technical support
  • Applications and online content that provides and promotes self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration

For digital inclusion to be effective, it must constantly evolve as technology changes. It “requires intentional strategies and investments to reduce and eliminate historical, institutional, and structural barriers to access and use technology.”

Government funding to secure ‘Internet for All’

President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) into law in November 2021. The bill includes a $65 billion investment to “ensure every American has access to reliable high-speed internet.”

In May 2022, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), tasked with administering most of this funding through the “Internet for All” initiative, released Notice of Funding Opportunities (NOFOs) for three of the four programs:

  • The State Digital Equity Act (DEA) programs ($1.5 billion of $2.75 billion allotted in the DEA)
  • The Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program ($42.5 billion)
  • The Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program ($1 billion)

With the release of new funding through the IIJA, as well as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) E-rate and Rural Health Care programs, the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund (SLFRF) under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and other COVID-19 relief funds, states are quickly looking to establish new broadband network infrastructures and procure everything from new data centers, internet of things (IOT), and cloud capabilities. But it’s not that simple.

While significant funding is available for digital equity, not all communities have the capacity to research grant opportunities and requirements, especially rural communities.

That’s where SHI comes in.

The benefits of the SHI’s grants program

The SHI Grants Support Program can help you identify grants that are applicable to your community and guide you through the entire application process.

SHI will provide you with grants information and personalized funding reports. During consultation calls, we can aid you in creating project ideas, securing funding to finance digital equity initiatives, and more.

Our partnership with Grants Office – a national grants development services firm with 20 years of experience assisting public sector agencies with finding and securing funding for tech initiatives – will allow us to make the process of identifying and coordinating potential grants as smooth as possible.

Once that funding is secured, SHI can help you put that plan into action.

With SHI’s unmatched partnerships and valuable technical expertise, we can offer your organization the solutions it needs to achieve greater digital inclusion, paving the way for a more digitally equitable future.