Solving the Digital Divide: Telecom and Fiber and Rural Electric – Oh My! (Part 1)

In rural America, 35 percent of Americans – or roughly 22 million people – lack meaningful access to high-speed broadband internet. This is compared to just 3 percent of people in urban areas.

Sometimes referred to as the “digital divide,” this gap in broadband availability is frankly unacceptable when you consider that every industry – from healthcare and education to manufacturing and farming – increasingly relies on internet connectivity. The digital divide, in other words, hurts more than our ability to stream videos.

A recent report from the Indiana Broadband Technology Association shows that Indiana is beginning to close the gap in broadband availability. But there is more work to do.

In this series of blog posts, we will explore a solution to Indiana’s digital divide which involves fiber networks, telephone companies, and rural electric co-ops working together to connect all Hoosiers to high speed broadband – much like a focus on instant telephonic communications and electrification transformed the landscape of rural America in the early part of the 20th century.

In 1935, only 10 percent of rural America had access to electrical power. This figure was in sharp contrast to the 90 percent of urban dwellers who utilized electricity daily.

In an effort to elevate the living condition of all Americans – regardless of where they lived – the Roosevelt Administration enacted the Rural Electrification Act in 1936. The act provided federal loans to install electrical distribution systems to serve isolated areas throughout the country. These funds were distributed through rural electric membership corporations (REMCs) – most of which still exist today.

Thanks to the Rural Electrification Act and REMCs, 90 percent of rural America had access to electricity by 1950. In less than 15 years, living conditions in rural areas completely changed, creating access to electronic appliances, running water, and a connection to the outside world via radio.

Today, we’ve reached a similar turning point regarding the need for greater connectivity via the internet. Just as REMCs connected Americans through electricity access – and telephone companies connected the country via instant communication – these companies, working hand-in-hand with fiber networks such as IFN, can deliver this connectivity to Hoosiers who are caught in the digital divide.

Stay tuned for Part 2 when we will discuss the key players in advancing fiber connectivity across the state.