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digital divide

24 Million Americans Don't Have Access to Broadband—Why Isn't It an Election Issue?

It’s rare that the digital divide even gets lip service, let alone a robust platform from candidates.

Kaleigh Rogers

Kaleigh Rogers

Image: Sean Proctor/Motherboard

Many elections around the US this year are more closely watched and highly contested races than the typical midterm. With so much at stake, you’d think an issue that affects more than 24 million Americans would be easy pickings for campaign platforms.

Yet few candidates, from local mayoral races all the way up to the Senate, provide lip service to the fact that millions of Americans still lack access to broadband, and even fewer flesh out a robust policy to address it. At a time when politics is more divisive than ever, basic issues such as access to the internet are being overshadowed by the massive ideological clashes happening across the country.

“If you were to ask people what issues they’re voting on, first and foremost they would say ‘pro-Trump or anti-Trump,’” said Susan Boser, the Democratic candidate seeking to replace Republican House Member Glenn Thompson in Pennsylvania. “Next would be guns and abortion, then the needs of the area, which are jobs and the opioid epidemic.”

Boser told me a lack of access to broadband is a huge problem in her district, which is a large, predominantly rural swath along the northwestern edge of the state; its largest town, Indiana, has a population of less than 15,000.

Boser was one of only a handful of candidates I found who directly address access to broadband in their platforms.

“Throughout this particular district you will find access to internet confined to larger communities and there aren’t that many, maybe a dozen of them,” Boser said. “I’ve seen the impoverization of the area and a lot of young people leaving. We’re in trouble, quite honestly, and this is a critical piece of that.”

But Boser has found the issue isn’t top of mind for voters unless directly tied to its potential impact on the economy, which is how she tries to frame it: improving access to broadband would allow for more remote work opportunities, for example. Some other candidates around the country—in Congressional, governor, and local races—mention it in debates or media interviews, but haven’t made it core to their platforms, and many others simply haven’t addressed the digital divide at all.

Consider Mississippi, a state with one of the worst rates of access to broadband in the country. In urban areas, more than a quarter of Mississippians don’t have high speed internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission’s latest assessment. In rural areas, more than half the population doesn’t have broadband access. Mississippi is also the home of multiple highly contested midterm races—all four House seats, as well as both Senate seats, are up for grabs. Yet in all these races, I could find only a single, passing mention about broadband access, from one Democratic primary candidate, Jerone Garland, in an interview with the Clarion Ledger.

"I am afraid that it is mostly talk [for politicians],” said Christopher Mitchell, the director of Community Broadband Networks for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “Even those that may intend to do something about it will run into the powerful cable and telephone lobbyists and then have to make a hard decision: are they more afraid of their constituents or the cable and telephone companies? Historically, most have quietly sided with the cable and telephone monopolies and we are hard-pressed to name a single rural elected official that has lost his or her job because they made that choice.”

In Tennessee, broadband access has faced progress and setbacks. Chattanooga found economic revival after building city-owned gigabit internet, but was quickly prohibited from expanding the network to surrounding communities because of a Telecom-backed state law. Efforts to fight those limits have failed, making it difficult for municipal internet providers to expand and offer services to smaller communities.

A Tennessee Democratic Party spokesperson told me the broadband battle is being drowned out by more contentious rhetoric.

“We’ve got a governor race with a highly contested Republican primary, so you’ve got all those candidates out there with television ads focused on immigration and other issues,” he told me over the phone. “That’s where voter attention is at the moment.”

There’s also a tendency to brush off the issue: Building new broadband infrastructure is expensive, daunting, and not something a single candidate could pledge to achieve overnight. There have been plenty of plans made at state and local levels that promise to close the digital divide through millions of dollars of investment, but little progress has been made, and often proposed plans fall short. Blair Levin, a senior fellow at Brookings, has written that President Donald Trump’s proposed infrastructure investments—often touted as the antidote to digital divide—is unlikely to actually improve rural access to the internet.

"Word is getting out to our legislators that people care about this.”

There is some sense, however, that the tide is slowly changing on the role digital divide will play in elections. Internet advocacy groups have started politicizing digital divide and net neutrality, to remind voters of the connection between the ballot box and their wifi connection. Take Fight for the Future, a nonprofit digital rights group, which bought billboards shaming members of Congress who supported repealing net neutrality or had ties to Big Telecom.

At the local level, dealing with internet service is inevitable, which means local politicians may have been forced to pay closer attention to the issue. In Colorado, where municipal broadband has become a popular option for many cities, some voters have seen a “trickle up” effect, where politicians at the state level final take notice of what’s happening in local government.

“Our lawmakers are starting to wake up to the tactics of the lobbyists for Big Telecom,” said Glen Akins, a Colorado voter and advocate for municipal broadband. “We had a few bills go through state legislature this year that were more angled for needs of consumers, and there was some pushback from the incumbents, but they ultimately made it through the legislation. At the state level, word is getting out to our legislators that people care about this.”

The limited number of candidates actually pushing broadband infrastructure as a platform point may provide some case studies. It’s not unheard of for parties to misread what’s important for voters. If broadband-focused candidates find success, it might inspire future races to focus more on an issue that affects so many Americans, particularly in rural areas. It’s part of Boser’s plan, and she’s noticing increased interest.

“When I talk about the needs of the area, I’m focused on local economy and the first solution is broadband. Everybody’s head is nodding; I’m getting very, very strong support for it,” she said. “I had one woman come up to me after a town hall and say, ‘You had me at broadband.’”

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