Intellectual Freedom Fighters, Part 5: Rural Internet Access Groups
By: Kelly Bilz
In Intellectual Freedom Fighters, a five-part series, I hope to draw attention to organizations who are either extraordinary or unique in their efforts to preserve and protect intellectual freedom. These organizations might have drawn my attention due to their specific focus within intellectual freedom, their successes, or their extreme measures. This fifth and final part’s highlight belongs to groups fighting for internet access in rural communities.
Our Undivided Attention
When I was first applying to library science programs and preparing to wax poetic about access in my essays (totally unlike what I’m about to do now), a video was making the rounds on social media talking about the Homework Gap. To summarize the video, two groups students, who cannot see each other, are competing in a trivia competition. After they answer a few questions, one group is given a stack of encyclopedias (throwback, right?), and the other is given a laptop. As the questions become more difficult, predictably, the team with the laptop dominates, while the encyclopedia team languishes in defeat. We all know that the competition is unfair, but the video points out that when students are assigned homework based on the assumption that they all have reliable internet access at home, it is also unfair.
The Homework Gap is part of a larger phenomenon: the Digital Divide. The digital divide has many forms, not only affecting students, but also existing between the rich and poor, the nonrural and rural. There is no question that technology has fundamentally changed the human experience, so when people lack access to that technology, it affects their prospects in the job market, their digital literacy, and of course, their schoolwork.
There are a few ways that governments, organizations, and activists have tackled the issue. Each context has a different set of obstacles, and even within rural contexts, there are unique historic factors to be considered. The difficulties faced by the Appalachian region, for instance, aren’t the same as those faced by tribal lands (both discussed below). The digital divide requires some creativity, so in this final installment of the Intellectual Freedom Fighters series, I want to highlight those who are tackling this issue in different ways–but this list is by no means exhaustive. There is so much going on, from corporations and nonprofits and politicians alike.
Even two of the so-called “frightful five” are pitching in. Microsoft has undertaken two efforts to reduce the digital divide in rural areas: first, it formed Connect Americans Now, “a group of concerned citizens, local organizations, rural advocates, and leading innovators.” You can find some members of this coalition here. Their focus is getting the FCC to change its restrictions so that providing internet access in remote areas will be easier. Microsoft’s other effort, the Rural Airband Initiative, started in 2017 with the objective to bring access to two million rural residents in five years. Their white paper describes their strategy–using TV white spaces–in more depth.
Perhaps more ambitious is Project Kuiper from Amazon, which is a project to launch 3,236 satellites in low Earth orbit to provide internet access to 95% of the population. Amazon has submitted an application for FCC approval, but no timeline for the project has been announced yet. As it was just announced in April of this year, it will take some time to develop.
These corporations are directing their resources to bridging the digital divide, which has the obvious benefit of more customers to buy their products (and, in the case of Amazon, furthering their space initiatives in the process). Nevertheless, other companies are following their lead, and as prolific tech companies, they have the equipment and expertise to tackle the issue effectively.
Sometimes, the only way to do something right is to do it yourself–or at least, that seems to be the case for the increasing number of municipalities who provide their own internet service for residents. This might seem like a radical solution, at least in an American context, but in January 2018, it was reported that upward of 750 towns provided their own networks. As explained in an article by Voice of America, it can be difficult to convince internet provider companies to invest in rural communities at all. It is costly to set up, first of all, since it requires digging in rural areas to bury the fiber, and second, smaller populations mean smaller profits.
In some states, however, municipal networks are prohibited in some way, whether outright or through indirect methods. Connect Americans Now faces similar barriers and encourages supporters to email officials (which you can do so here!) to remove these barriers.
Where would we be without nonprofits? Seriously. Every spot in this series went to nonprofit organizations, and this installment is no exception.
MuralNet is a nonprofit that focuses on internet access in tribal lands. Their strategy focuses on libraries, schools, and colleges to provide access to the two-thirds of tribal lands that are unconnected. Thanks to MuralNet’s efforts, the FCC passed an order in July that gives Tribal Nations a window to claim 2.5 GHz Spectrum, and in a partnership with the Havasupai Tribal Council, they helped connect the community of Supai, Arizona.
Additionally, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has a broadband initiative across the United States, though I want to focus on Appalachia. Other nonprofits have attempted to bring technological skills, coding in particular, to the region, especially as the local job market shifts away from the coal industry. However, in the case of Mined Minds, the project ended in disaster and lawsuits (although supposedly it’s still in operation). In communities that have been exploited, like those in Appalachia and on tribal lands, it is crucial that nonprofits earn and keep the trust of the community, if they are not headed by community members already.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the obvious hub of internet access in communities urban and rural, rich and poor, young and old: public libraries. Increasingly, when I tell people what I’m studying, they respond with stories of how they relied on a library’s free internet at some point in their lives. Many libraries rent out hotspots for patrons to use at home, and even after-hours, WiFi is still available in the parking lot.
If you’re reading this, you’ve got internet access in some way, maybe at a public library or on a municipal network. It’s easy to take Internet access for granted–especially when you’re a volunteer blogger, in my case–but the digital divide’s impact is long-lasting. How many job openings still use paper applications? Moreover, how many schools rely on the Internet for textbooks, quizzes, and homework? Internet access might seem low on the list of priorities–clean water and food are pretty important–but the Internet has become crucial in modern life. It connects us to jobs, to ideas, to opportunities, and most importantly, to each other.
Kelly Bilz is a graduate student from Kentucky pursuing her MLIS with a specialization in academic libraries. She works in her university’s Special Collections as well as the local history department of a public library. Kelly first heard about intellectual freedom in her Information in Society course and has spent the time since arguing with her friends about intellectual freedom in algorithms, ethics, and institutional integrity. Because she is passionate about history and the cultural record, Kelly is interested in how intellectual freedom affects access to genealogical records and ethical collecting practices in archives. In her free time, Kelly enjoys listening to podcasts (especially Ear Hustle) and watching old movies (like Lady from Shanghai). Find her on LinkedIn.