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Oklahoma State, Purdue team up to tackle digital divide in America

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Researchers at Oklahoma State University and Purdue University have determined some broadband policies instituted by states have been successful in expanding needed access while others not only failed to help, they have been detrimental.

The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the importance of affordable broadband access for people trying to work, make use of online health care technologies and teach children from home, said Brian Whitacre, OSU Extension rural development specialist and holder of the university’s Jean and Patsy Neustadt Chair in Agricultural Economics.

“Data shows that, in some states, fewer than 50% of rural residents have a broadband connection available where they live,” he said. “Think of the classic customers-per-mile versus miles-per-customer challenge that led to the formation of rural electric cooperatives in the early 20th century. Internet providers understandably want to make a profit, and that has been more difficult in rural areas compared to urban environments.”

In addition, some states have restrictions on who can provide broadband. Laws in those states prevent certain types of organizations – such as municipalities and electric cooperatives – from providing broadband based on the idea that publicly-funded entities might be competing with private-sector providers.

Photo of hand using mobile phone to connect to internet.
Although a one-size-fits-all approach for state broadband expansion efforts does not exist, the ability to access a high-speed internet connection is not close to consistent throughout any state’s counties. (Photo by Todd Johnson, OSU Agricultural Communications Services)

Some state governments set up funding programs that helped subsidize broadband deployment in rural areas. These programs typically offer financial incentives to providers to install broadband infrastructure in lower-population regions.

Others established broadband offices. Those typically work with providers, communities and stakeholders to discuss options available for places without broadband and to improve broadband adoption rates for places that do have it.

Whitacre and Roberto Gallardo, director of the Purdue Center for Rural Development, wanted to know how state policies affected the availability of broadband, especially ultra-fast fiberoptic networks needed for high-end healthcare technologies. They also studied how state policies affected broadband competition, defined as access to two or more providers. The duo analyzed data from 2012-2018 across all 3,143 counties in the United States.

“Our results show that as time progressed, counties in states with municipal broadband restrictions had lower broadband availability than counties without such legislation,” Gallardo said. “Counties in states with their own broadband funding programs had higher broadband and fiber availability. State offices did not influence broadband or fiber availability but did affect increased competition – the percentage of homes with access to two or more broadband providers.”

Similar results were found when looking only at rural areas. However, in those locations the state broadband offices were more important for increasing fiber availability as opposed to increasing competition.

Primary takeaways of the study were:

  • State broadband policies do matter. For example, data indicated enacting a state broadband fund should increase the rural availability rate by up to 3%.
  • Combining state policies leads to greater impact. As an example, if a state started a funding program and repealed existing municipal restrictions, data showed its rural areas should experience about a 5% increase in availability.

Whitacre said the Pew Charitable Trusts – an independent non-profit, non-governmental organization founded in 1948 – has case studies online that detail what states are doing and highlights of recent changes in state approaches.

“Clearly, more work needs to be done to reduce the digital divide between urban and rural areas,” he said. “Dr. Gallardo and I believe that assessing the impact of additional policies that are not as prevalent would be a good next step to seeing what other approaches states should implement. Broadband affordability also is a continuing issue.”

Whitacre is a faculty member in the OSU Department of Agricultural Economics, part of the university’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. He was recently appointed by the State Senate to serve on the new Oklahoma Rural Broadband Expansion Council.

MEDIA CONTACT: Donald Stotts | Agricultural Communications Services | 405-744-4079 |

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