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Digital Divide is a Real Problem for Rural America, and Many Solutions Are Needed to Solve It

Liana Sowa

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Screenshot of Shirley Bloomfield from the webinar

October 12, 2020 – The digital divide is a real problem for rural America, Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA, the Rural Broadband Association, said on Thursday at the Blandin Foundation’s conference on broadband.

“People in Washington like to talk about the digital divide, those who have connectivity and those who are still waiting for it,” just as they discuss electricity, Bloomfield said.

But she said she sees most of America served by large corporations that follow where the money is, and rural areas are often left with providers that are smaller, but still faithfully serve their communities.

And in the environment in which the coronavirus pandemic has changed so much, instead of seeing spikes in broadband usage throughout the day, we now see that “spike” going all day long, Bloomfield said. This trend will only continue, she said.

Bloomfield endorsed the need for funding for broadband mapping and deployment. She praised the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund decision to go forward even amid less-than-adequate broadband maps.

She also recognized the role of Department of Agriculture ‘s ReConnect program.

And while she said fiber was the preferred technology, wireless is still a good short-term solution for those who had nothing. The recent Citizens Broadband Radio Service auction may spur on more such developments.

Even without federal funding, several solutions have and should proceed forward with broadband deployments. For example, in North Dakota, the state worked with Dakota Carrier Network, splitting up the areas that needed coverage between the companies. “This is one of the best ways to make sure the communities aren’t left behind,” she said.

Larger companies are building fiber networks in some of these rural areas but they’re only doing it for 5G backhaul, she said. It would be better if those companies could also be incentivized to build the fiber out directly to customers at the same time they were building backhaul fiber.

She also said that she was “extraordinarily bullish about telemedicine.”

Since the outset of COVID, many of the usual telemedicine restrictions, such as the inability to practice across state borders, have been removed, increasing the umbrella of patient care.

Rural areas should focus on their health clinics because they provided one-size-fits-all  care, she suggested. They could help be an intermediary institution for people too afraid of going to a hospital packed with people.

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