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Tech Regulation Digest: Insights on the Digital Divide from the Community Explorer

Tech Regulation Digest: November 2022
Insights on the Digital Divide from the Community Explorer


Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans have become increasingly reliant on technology, as access to the internet has become essential for education, career development, and even health care. A December 2021 report from the US Department of Health and Human Services revealed that telehealth usage for Medicare beneficiaries increased 63-fold between 2019 and 2020. More parents and students are now willing to consider online education, and, as a result, more education providers at all levels are offering online learning opportunities. Even employers are now more likely to offer remote work positions that do not require commuting to an office. 

Access to a fast and reliable internet connection is indispensable to take advantage of this surge in technology utilization. Unfortunately, access to broadband internet is not a reality for 14.5 million Americans, and experts have identified a digital divide between those with and those without internet capabilities. In this month’s digest, we utilize the Community Explorer to identify communities that experience this divide and to understand better the policies needed to address it. 


The Community Explorer is an interactive tool that synthesizes 751 characteristics of the population in the 3,142 US counties into 17 communities. Each community comprises counties with core economic, demographic, and social attributes. Because they are not geographically bounded, these 17 communities provide insights to policymakers about equity-related issues that transcend state borders, such as broadband internet adoption and access. 

The map below provides insights into the distribution of internet adoption across the US counties. Click here to be taken to the interactive map below.

Community Explorer - Tech Reg Digest Nov. 2022 - Map 1

Focusing on the four communities of the Communities Explorer that constitute the Extremely Vulnerable America group (Hispanic Southern Border, Black South, White Appalachia, and American Indian Reservations), the map below shows that in all but one of the counties within these communities, less than 80 percent of households have access to the internet at home. That is, all the counties are in orange and red, with the exception of one in green, Merced County in California, which is located right next door to Silicon Valley.

Community Explorer - Tech Reg Digest Nov. 2022 - Map 2

Access to the internet at home, as reported in the map, illustrates internet adoption—the percentage of households with or without a broadband internet subscription. In areas lacking internet adoption, such as those highlighted above, the reasons for low connectivity levels can be socioeconomic as well as structural. Even where broadband is available, economically disadvantaged families may not be able to afford it.

At the same time, low internet adoption may result from lacking digital infrastructure, leading to low internet speed, quality, and reliability. An April 2022 survey by the Purdue Center for Regional Development asked respondents about their reasons for not having internet at home. Among the nearly 5,000 respondents, 28 percent said it was not available, 16 percent said it was available but too expensive, and 20.5 percent of respondents said that the internet was available but either “too slow” or “not reliable” in their experience. 

Why Is This Important?

The distinction between internet access and service quality and speed is essential when looking at how to resolve the digital divide. A recent investigation by The Markup into providers like AT&T and Verizon found that lower-income and least-White neighborhoods were offered slower internet at the same price as faster internet options offered to higher-income neighborhoods. AT&T argues in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that high-speed internet deployment is determined by population density. To provide some context: The four extremely vulnerable communities highlighted in the Community Explorer map capture 3.5 percent of the US population and 12 percent of the counties.

The recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, appropriates $65 billion in federal subsidies to bridge the digital divide and ensure “equal access” to broadband internet. Most of this appropriation ($42.45 billion) is for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, which will be distributed to states by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) once they receive and approve proposals on how they plan to use the resources.  

While most experts agree that subsidies are necessary to bridge the gap in access, some argue for the need for much larger support ($240 billion), along with more public-private partnerships and locally focused implementation.

Others turn their attention to the regulatory system, arguing that the FCC needs to hold providers accountable for the disparities in pricing, quality, and access. Because broadband internet is not regulated by the FCC like a public utility (as is the case for electricity and phones), the FCC does not have the authority to ensure universal access and determine quality standards. To address this, broadband would need to be reclassified as a “telecommunications service” under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act.

Public Knowledge, a think tank focused on telecommunications policy, argues that a combination of direct subsidies and regulatory reform is needed to address the digital divide. In addition to reclassifying broadband internet as a public utility, they support a $50/month subsidy to low-income families to pay for broadband internet. While this subsidy existed during the pandemic through the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, it’s now been replaced by the Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides $30/month discounts to families in poverty and $75/month discounts to families on qualifying tribal lands. 

What Happens Next?

The Pew Charitable Trusts reports that over the last several years, all 50 states have developed a designated broadband program, and 49 currently have one or more departments solely working on broadband access. These state programs, along with the NTIA, are now tasked with administering the $42.45 billion from the BEAD program. 

The NTIA outlined the parameters of the program this summer and released a Notice of Funding Opportunity to states in May of this year. The program provides a minimum of $100 million to every state and $25 million to every US territory. States had to submit their request for initial planning funds by August of this year and are now developing proposals to receive the grant. The proposals involve a five-year action plan and initial groundwork with community stakeholders and local governments, all to ensure that the funding goes to the areas of highest need. Final proposals for funding will likely be due in 2024, depending on how quickly the NTIA notifies states of their formula for grant allocations.