Thursday, August 06, 2020

Black households less likely to get to benefit from co-ops' rural fiber-optic buildouts because of high subscription costs

Broadband has never been more important, but many rural areas lack it, or have slower service installed by major telecommunications companies. Rural electric and telephone cooperatives are increasingly building out fast fiber-optic internet in rural areas, but Black households are less likely to get it due to high subscription prices, Nicol√°s Rivero reports for Quartz.

"Across the rural U.S., more than 100 cooperatives, first launched to provide electric and telephone services as far back as the 1930s, are now laying miles of fiber-optic cable to connect their members to high-speed internet. Many started building their own networks after failing to convince established internet service providers to cover their communities," Rivero reports. "But while rural fiber-optic networks have spread swiftly over the past five years, their progress has been uneven. In North Dakota, for example, fiber-optic co-ops cover 82% of the state’s landmass, while Nevada has just one co-op. And in the states where the utilities do exist, they tend to serve the whitest communities."

Some co-ops serve mostly Black households, but they aren't doing fiber internet. Fiber internet generally requires 50 to 60% of members to pay at least $50 a month for internet, according to Christopher Mitchell, who studies local broadband networks with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "If you look at the kind of poverty we see in the rural Black community, I don’t think we can forecast that level of subscription," Mitchell told Rivero.

Racial disparities are not a new phenomenon among rural co-ops, said Oleta Fitzgerald, a regional administrator for the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative. She noted that 13 rural co-ops in Mississippi recently got state funding to build out fiber-optic networks, and only one serves a predominantly Black community.

Fitzgerald, who is 72, told Rivero that majority-Black communities were often the last to get electricity or running water, and said rural co-ops today need more federal funding for fiber-optic projects that can reach the poorest communities. "While there is no unified federal fiber funding program, the USDA has been funding a patchwork of projects through other grants," Rivero reports.

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