Billions in Public Funding Yet Rural Broadband Still Lags

Newsy investigation finds missed deadlines, flawed FCC maps, lack of oversight keeps rural U.S. on wrong side of digital divide.

Video Transcript

- So no internet access, so then what I have to do is restart my computer.

ANGELA HILL: Caroline [INAUDIBLE] is a first grade teacher in rural Maryland.

- Sometimes when I'm logging onto my Google Slides, Google Slides will not load. That's downtime, and it's missed education, it's missed--

ANGELA HILL: The [INAUDIBLE] don't have access to high speed internet.

- So here is the router. Then you come up, and you kind of fiddle and try to get them tight.

ANGELA HILL: It's a problem that hurts the whole family. Her husband, Matthew, also works from home.

- I was deployed 10 years ago, 2011. I was in Iraq. And I had more internet options there 10 years ago than we have here.

ANGELA HILL: Yet less than a half a mile down the road, their neighbors have access to broadband.

- It is very frustrating to know that just up the street, they've got all their internet needs taken care of. And we are kind of living in the stone age.

ANGELA HILL: The [INAUDIBLE] live on the wrong side of the digital divide.

- Where broadband is and where broadband isn't, this hodgepodge of connected and unconnected zones all interwoven together, they've ended up being quite disastrous for the state of connectivity across the United States.

ANGELA HILL: This was not the plan. The federal government has given billions to internet service providers to expand broadband access. But with little government oversight, some experts say thousands of communities still lack the internet service they were promised. BroadbandNow, a research organization, reports nearly 42 million Americans don't have access to broadband internet. That's double the number reported by the Federal Communications Commission, which admits its data is flawed.

- The FCC released its annual broadband progress report. It was a glowing assessment that all is well, but that's just not credible,

ANGELA HILL: A Newsy analysis of Census estimates found from 2017 to 2019 only about half of rural counties saw a measurable increase in the share of households with the internet. According to the FCC map, the entire area where the [INAUDIBLE] live has broadband. That's partially because internet companies are only required to say where they can reasonably provide service within a Census block. If one house in the Census block has broadband, the FCC map considers the entire area served.

- It presents an overstatement of the availability of broadband connections in that community. It matters because that influences billions of dollars in public funding.

ANGELA HILL: Companies are still paid for providing broadband, albeit limited coverage. Yet it prevents many communities from expanding broadband access.

- If that community is considered served, they are not going to be eligible for federal dollars. They're also not going to be eligible in many cases for state programs, as well.

ANGELA HILL: In other cases, companies including Frontier and CenturyLink receive multimillion-dollar federal government contracts to deliver broadband across the country but fail to meet final milestone deadlines. The FCC denied Newsy's request for an interview to discuss these concerns. However, in a congressional hearing last summer, the FCC had this to say.

- Despite having made no efforts to improve our nation's dubious broadband data, the FCC is about to hand out billions in fixed broadband support with the new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

- You don't have meaningful accountability. What you have is taxpayer dollars being granted to companies without adequate oversight and accountability.

ANGELA HILL: Meanwhile, rural and urban communities alike are grappling with what it means to be on the wrong side of the digital divide.

- This day and age, the internet is an essential service. It's every bit as important as power, water.

ANGELA HILL: The FCC has launched its Broadband Data Task Force, indicating its commitment to improving data, something experts say is critical in closing the digital divide.

Angela Hill, Newsy, Washington.