Report: With Digital Divide Widening, Accessible Broadband Access is a Top Equity Issue Facing America’s Counties

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A new report by the National Association of Counties’ Broadband Task Force highlights significant gaps in broadband access, barriers to filling those holes, and a path forward to addressing the digital divide

WASHINGTON – Our nation’s digital divide is widening, not narrowing, laying bare issues of inequity facing underserved communities across the country. A comprehensive, coordinated approach to bridge the divide is needed to pursue new broadband infrastructure investment, public policies and user skills. That’s according to a new report by the National Association of Counties (NACo) Broadband Task Force. The Task Force, appointed by then NACo President Gary Moore and comprised of nearly three dozen county government officials from across America, has spent the past year studying the lack of reliable broadband in urban, suburban and rural America.

The report, broken down into four primary areas of work: preparing for broadband; barriers to buildout; digital divides and disparities; and future-proofing the “glocal” economy, highlights the major role counties play in providing reliable and affordable broadband access and includes case studies, best practices and policy recommendations.

“The COVID-19 pandemic served as an accelerator in what was already a shift to an almost fully digital world,” said Task Force Co-Chair Craig Rice, a Montgomery County, Md. council member. Today, reliable, fast and affordable high-speed internet is as fundamental as acquiring electricity in the first half of the 20th century.”

“The work of this task force and the findings of this report are critical, with too many of our residents on the wrong side of the digital divide,” said Task Force Co-Chair J.D. Clark, the county judge in Wise County, Texas. “This report is a deep dive into the work that needs to be done by all of us – elected officials, providers and community partners – to bridge that divide and level the playing field for communities, businesses and families forced to use antiquated 20th century technology when 21st century solutions are available, sometimes just a county away.” 

Preliminary findings of the NACo Broadband Task Force:

  • County officials play a crucial role as policymakers, funders, data aggregators, conveners and partners in pursuing sustainable solutions to broadband access, affordability and reliability
  • Federally supported, locally collected and verified data is imperative to understand America’s true state of connectivity
  • Eliminating our nation’s digital divide and ensuring universal, reliable, affordable broadband access will require many technological solutions, including fiber, satellite, cellular, fixed wireless, cable and future innovations
  • Open “middle mile” systems can increase competition and result in improved affordability and access
  • Federal resources used to eliminate the digital divide should incentivize future-proofed systems and require coordination between local governments and internet service providers (ISPs) to ensure community needs are met within acceptable timeframes
  • Broadband needs to be regulated as a utility to eliminate the digital divide effectively and comprehensively

The task force outlined specific themes that serve as important force multipliers in deploying better, more affordable services. They are:

  • Defining a modern “minimum standard” of broadband
  • Implementing smart “Dig Once” policies including “rights of way” as public assets
  • Testing and deploying fiber, cellular, satellite and other technologies
  • Focusing on local community engagement and partnerships
  • Tackling the “Homework Gap”
  • Removing bans on municipal broadband
  • Establishing a national grants/loans clearinghouse
  • Regulating broadband as a utility
  • Committing to world-class broadband data and mapping analytics

Local governments often face state-imposed limitations to expanding access to broadband connectivity. In at least 18 states, local governments are restricted from making investments in broadband infrastructure networks. The task force report finds that when states restrict local governments from making broadband networks and services investments, they are limiting opportunities for counties to achieve the user scale necessary, including with public-private partnerships that help overcome otherwise cost-prohibitive service opportunities. NACo is working to pass federal legislation that would remove those barriers and expand broadband access.  

The report also finds that better data lead to better policy decisions. An earlier report, titled Understanding the True State of Connectivity in America, released by NACo and partner organizations last year, found that nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of U.S. counties experience the internet at speeds below minimum standards set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), with that number even higher in rural America, where 77 percent of counties operate below the FCC standard. The report finds that overstated coverage maps, dated equipment and infrastructure, affordability, cost of buildout, troublesome terrain and adverse weather conditions contribute to the nation’s growing digital divide. 

Lack of reliable broadband is a major barrier to socioeconomic opportunity, education, health and overall quality of life. Without access to high-speed internet, many rural communities – and even pockets in urban areas – are isolated and left behind. A 2018 study conducted by Microsoft concluded that 19 million rural Americans do not use broadband, largely due to a lack of access. For these small communities, broadband can serve as a lifeline, connecting students to online degrees and connecting sick patients to medical consultation that is locally unavailable.

High-speed internet is also consistently identified as a top challenge facing small businesses in rural America and stifles entrepreneurship by limiting the ability of individuals to take on independent work. In this economy, broadband is critical to building resilient and future-ready communities.

The report includes research and case studies from a diverse sampling of 28 counties.

Read the full report, learn about the NACo Broadband Task Force and explore all of NACo’s broadband resources at

View Understanding the True State of Connectivity in America, here.