Nearly 40% (38%) of the Black Rural South population lacks home internet service, according to a new report from Joint Center, which calls itself “America’s Black think tank,” focusing on policy solutions to “eradicate persistent and evolving barriers to the full freedom of Black people in America.”
In comparison, less than 20% of the overall U.S. population lacks home internet.
According to Joint Center’s definition, the Black Rural South includes 152 counties in 10 southern states that are at least 35% black. These areas often are overlooked because efforts to close the digital divide often conflate “rural” with “white” and “urban” with “black,” Joint Center wrote in the report.
The low broadband penetration in the Black Rural South results from both availability and affordability issues, the Joint Center research shows.
More than a quarter (25.8%) of Black Rural South residents do not have access to broadband at speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps. And because black households in the Black Rural South are likely to have incomes under $35,000, they are also less likely to be able to afford broadband even when it is available.
The report cites Pew Research Center data showing that nationwide, 44% of households with incomes under $35,000 lack broadband, compared to only 13% of those with incomes of $50,000 or more.
Joint Center sees opportunities to advance education and workforce training and create job opportunities in the Black Rural South if more people in the Black Rural South were to obtain home internet. And considering the high level of hospital closures in the Black Rural South, another benefit would be improved healthcare via telehealth, the report notes.
The report makes a range of recommendations to help make high-speed quality broadband affordable and available in the Black Rural South, including:
- Establish a permanent and meaningful broadband benefit program for lower-income households.
- Require broadband providers that receive Universal Service Funds (USF) to provide low-income households and high-cost area consumers with an affordable option.
- Federal broadband infrastructure investments should prioritize the Black Rural South.
- When distributing recovery funds, Southern states should prioritize broadband expansion in Black Rural South counties.
- Launch a task force and create rules to prevent digital redlining, where service providers focus on deploying broadband to higher-income areas.
- Prioritize federal funding for broadband projects developed by Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
- Invest in research to understand challenges and to steadily improve broadband access.
- Update the federal definition of “high-speed” broadband.
- Prohibit state governments from inhibiting local broadband networks.
- Increase federal agency coordination and focus on the Black Rural South.