As new public-private partnerships work to ensure equitable broadband access across the country, analysts say such initiatives will continue to be crucial in bridging the rural-urban digital divide.

Government Technology magazine spoke to experts about how best to utilize and equitably distribute federal funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to expand rural connectivity. Due to the unique logistical, educational and technological challenges of ensuring digital equity, the public, private and nonprofit sectors will need to work together.

The lack of roads and relatively low population density in rural areas make broadband infrastructure development particularly challenging. There are no internet networks in some rural and tribal communities, unlike in urban areas where there are existing networks but lack of access is due to socioeconomic causes.

The business models of internet service providers (ISPs) can also harm rural communities due to the overwhelming power large private entities hold over broadband deployment. Telecom companies can choose to only provide broadband to locations where they will see the greatest return on investment. One expert expressed concern that the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill will privilege large providers rather than regional ISPs, cooperatives and local governments – especially without proper regulation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

COVID-19 put digital equity and inclusion at the forefront of national policy discussions and community forums alike, underscoring that broadband should be treated as a public utility and not a luxury. However, there is a risk that the historic influx of federal funds may be a lost opportunity if states are not well prepared and diverse stakeholder groups aren’t brought to the table to help ensure rural connectivity.

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