Friday, August 07, 2020

Pandemic shutdowns exacerbate rural broadband gap; rural publisher says papers should educate lawmakers about it

For many rural residents, the only way to access reliable high-speed internet is to go to a restaurant or library. But pandemic shutdowns have left such residents high and dry, exacerbating the already stark rural-urban broadband gap, Dustin Stephens reports for CBS News.

It's difficult to say precisely how many Americans lack real high-speed internet service; the Federal Communications Commission estimates around 23 million people, but they tend to overestimate rural broadband access. Recent reports estimate that 42.8 million people in the U.S. lack broadband access, and about 70% of people with no broadband access are in rural areas, according to a 2019 study.

Lack of broadband has wide-ranging impacts on rural Americans, from work and e-commerce to telehealth and news access, says Tonda Rush of the National Newspaper Association.

NNA President Matt Adelman, publisher of the Douglas Budget in Wyoming, said this week that newspapers serve a vital role in keeping rural residents informed, especially those who lack broadband access, and that newspapers should remind lawmakers of that: "Newspapers have to educate their public policy representatives constantly about what meaningful internet access is. It is more than just having fiber under the road near someone’s house. It is about having adequate speed to use the system. And then, it is about having the money to pay for the service. The big picture: paying a dollar or so for a local newspaper is more effective and reliable when you need to know what is going on."

Adelman includes public notices under readers' right to know, Rush reports. Lawmakers in many states have tried (sometimes successfully) to roll back laws requiring governments to purchase ads in local newspapers for public notices, instead arguing that the public can access them online. But those who lack adequate internet access are effectively cut off from such public notices, Adelman said.

Paid public notices comprise an increasing part of newspapers' income as other advertising shrinks during the pandemic.

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