A new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas warns that unequal broadband access for low income and rural communities creates disparities in education, opportunity and economic development, and indicates that government and community agencies will have to take stronger action to address these issues.
The report comes as a task force established by the Kansas Legislature is studying the issue. It also supports investments Kansas schools have made in student technology, such as one-to-one computers or tables, to teach digital skills.
According to the report, just 53 percent of adults with incomes less than $30,000 have broadband at home, compared with 95 percent of those with incomes above $75,000. Nearly 68 percent of those without broadband at home live in rural communities.
It also noted disparities also exist within metropolitan areas. “According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2015 nearly 88 percent of residents in suburban Overland Park, Kansas, had fixed broadband access, while in urban areas, just 63 percent of Kansas City, Kansas, and 67 percent of Kansas City, Missouri, residents were connected.”
The report said a key challenge is that many are not aware of this “digital divide,” or the issues it creates. For example:
Education: One study found that students with access to a computer and the internet at home are 6 to 8 percent more likely to graduate from high school. Another study found that about one-third of households with school-aged children lacked broadband. Yet another study said about half of students surveyed could not complete homework or received a lower grade because of a lack of broadband.
Workplace skills and wages. One report says that 83 percent of “middle class” jobs paying at least $15 an hour are classified by “digitally intensive,” and they jobs are growing faster and pay more than jobs requiring fewer digital skills. If low income and rural families lack these skills because they lack broadband, it will be more difficult advance economically.
Rural Communities. Among the most rural counties in the nation, those with the highest degree of broadband connectively grew in population between 2010 and 2016 (especially among Millennials). Those with less connectively lost population. Broadband supports both commerce and health care in rural areas.
Among other findings and recommendations:
- It will take new business models and/or public funding to serve unprofitable areas, and state governments will have to take a stronger role in providing broadband to rural areas. Data shows that 21 percent of the Kansas population is considered underserved (having access to fewer than two wired providers) and ranks 38th out of the 50 states in “connection level” based on the percent of the population with access to 25+ Mbps wired broadband. The report cites programs and strategies that states and communities are pursuing.
- Providing broadband infrastructure alone isn’t enough. Individuals must have home technology, such as computers, and the personal skills to use them, and be able to afford the connection to broadband providers. This is often, but not always, an issue of cost. Local governments, libraries, business and and civic groups can help provide basic training, free or discounted “hot spots” and donate refurbished equipment.
- It is important to have evaluation measures and promote collaboration across government, business and community organizations. Partnerships with families, business and communities is one of the key principles of the Kansans Can school redesign effort and the new school accreditation system.