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Broadband Deserts & The Digital Divide

Broadband and digital deserts, which are mostly found in rural and tribal areas, are subliminal spaces that those of us who have guaranteed and consistent service can dismiss as a temporary inconvenience with no consideration or awareness of the hundreds of thousands of people who navigate inconsistent and unreliable broadband daily, which translates to inconsistent and unreliable cell phone, internet, and cable service. In a global context where so much happens online, the deficiency and inefficiency highlights discrepancies in broadband availability, accessibility and affordability.

Perhaps the most surprising community disproportionately impacted by broadband deserts is historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. Alabama is ranked 38th in the nation for broadband access and has the highest number of HBCUs in the country. 80% of HBCUs nationwide, including those situated in urban cities, are located in broadband deserts.

In 2022, the Biden-Harris administration launched a $45 billion initiative, Internet for All, to bring reliable high-speed internet access by the end of the decade. Philanthropist Robert F. Smith, who is known for paying off the student loan debt of the 2019 graduating class of Morehouse College, is at the forefront of addressing this inequity. He has emphasized the importance of bringing resources to HBCUs “immediately, not five years from now.”

The programs linked to the Internet for All plan will build internet infrastructure, teach digital skills, and provide necessary technology to ensure that everyone in the U.S. – including communities of color, rural communities, and older Americans – have the access and skills they need to fully participate in society. While the expectation of the internet initiative is that students who attend HBCUs and other minority granting institutions will eventually have what they need, there is a significant knowledge gap happening now that can impact their future professional opportunities. Researchers have found that higher levels of broadband access lead to economic growth, lower unemployment and higher incomes.

Marcus Torry offers ways to bridge the digital divide. In addition to the public-private partnership reflected in Smith’s philanthropy, and the governmental intervention intended by Internet for All, he suggests community networks, satellite internet, fixed wireless broadband, mobile broadband, digital literacy programs and subsidies for low-income households.

While commendable and important, no future-focused infrastructure initiative can remedy the decades of negligence and oversight that created the gap in the first place. To achieve digital equity we have to figure out how to fill in the gaps in the short-term and the long term.

I’m Robin Boylorn, until next time, keep it crunk!

Written by Robin Boylorn
Edited by Brittany Young


Robin M. Boylorn is a college professor, founding member of the Crunk Feminist Collective, and host of the award-winning Crunk Culture commentary.