chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
February 13, 2024 Best of ABA Sections

How Lack of High-Speed Broadband Internet Impacts Justice in Rural Areas

Myles Montgomery

High-speed Internet gaps in rural states exacerbate existing inequities in the form of access to justice, especially for historically oppressed groups such as Indigenous populations. Current federal and state legislation targets money for broadband development. But solving this issue will take more than money. Effective implementation of broadband connectivity will require an understanding of the relationships between infrastructure development, service providers, local resources, and digital literacy development.

ADR, Online Dispute Resolution, and Access to Justice

Legal resources are scarcer in country environments, and rural areas experience “legal deserts,” where attorneys are in short supply. Especially in the context of attorney shortages, alternative dispute resolution (ADR) offers attractive solutions, including flexible approaches, faster outcomes, cost-effectiveness, and greater participant control.

Online dispute resolution (ODR) has proven highly effective in providing access to ADR services through a high-speed Internet interface. One study on ODR effectiveness in Ottawa County, Michigan, found that custody, child support, and parenting time disputes resolved faster when using an online platform. A study in Kane County, Illinois, found that 74 percent of online-mediated landlord-tenant disputes avoided eviction. Considering persistent levels of poverty in rural places, ADR and ODR represent potentially affordable avenues to justice. However, providing ADR training and ODR services requires adequate broadband resources, making the digital divide the greatest barrier.

The Digital Divide

The “digital divide” refers to the unequal access to technology among certain demographics and geographic regions. Besides referring to hardware and fiber optics, this term also refers to the relative level of digital literacy among a particular population. But lack of both infrastructure and service providers perpetuates the absence of connectivity in rural areas.

High-speed infrastructure has yet to reach many U.S. rural communities. A 2019 study by the Federal Communications Commission found that 18 million people are without adequate Internet service. The authors of the report resulting from the study conclude that this figure “wildly underestimates” the actual number, which may be between 42 million and 162 million. Importantly, the report also recognized that 26 percent of people in rural areas and 32 percent in tribal areas lack access to broadband.

Infrastructure is necessary but not sufficient in and of itself to solve the digital divide. Service providers are also required to link the Internet and end-users. In rural areas, private providers can be harder to come by, as potential profits are slimmer than in metropolitan areas. Without private providers, public entities must be leveraged. The costs of these services must also be affordable to customers, which is difficult for those living in poverty. Digital literacy, another aspect of the digital divide, must be promoted as well.

Legislation

Both federal and state legislation are poised to address some issues raised by the digital divide. For instance, the Infrastructure Investment Bill and American Jobs Act released $65 billion for improving broadband infrastructure across the United States. But commentators warn that “without accurate depictions and data on how residents in rural, urban, and tribal lands are adversely impacted by the lack of available and sufficient high-speed broadband, certain populations will be left without sufficient online connectivity and remain on the wrong side of digital opportunities. . . .”

State legislatures are also taking steps to develop and increase broadband services. Currently, 43 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have passed or are considering legislation that would expand the necessary infrastructure. Enacted and pending bills focus primarily on funding, governance, and taxes for expanding broadband services. A smaller number of bills address digital literacy and education.

Rural Areas: Barriers and Solutions

Snapshots of rural South Dakota, Mississippi, and Nebraska illustrate both the challenges posed by the digital divide and the efforts toward change. In 2019, in half of South Dakota’s counties identified as rural, 25 percent of residents were without Internet that meets high-speed standards. Additionally, South Dakota encompasses nine Indigenous tribes that are the poorest in the country, with a poverty rate of 49 percent. The existing level of poverty creates a further issue: The existence of broadband infrastructure and a provider does not mean residents can afford service. Responding to these conditions, the South Dakota legislature approved $5 million to fund the Connect SD program, a public-private collaboration with the intent of expanding broadband service throughout the state. This program reportedly has extended high-speed Internet to 26,000 homes, businesses, farms, and critical access facilities. In 2023, the state launched a digital literacy program and began to offset the costs of purchasing broadband service.

Mississippi experiences similar issues. In 2020, rural Mississippi communities experienced a 25 percent poverty rate. Mississippi’s Indigenous communities bear an even greater poverty burden (33.49 percent). Regarding high-speed connectivity, as of December 2019, Mississippi’s percentage of residents without access to high-speed broadband (19.7 percent) is the highest among Southern states. To address this issue, the Office of Broadband Expansion and Accessibility of Mississippi (BEAM) was created. BEAM proposed a five-year plan that includes three statewide goals: economic development for technology-focused start-ups, improvement in K–12 education, and the proliferation of broadband Internet services. Regarding the last goal, BEAM will distribute $1.2 billion from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to expand broadband services to approximately 300,000 underserved residents.

With an overall poverty rate of 10.8 percent, largely rural Nebraska faces the same connectivity issues. In response, the governor proposed creating a new office with the sole duty of expanding broadband services throughout the state. This new office hopes to replicate the success of Nebraskan counties that have independently initiated effective partnerships with Internet providers to increase delivery of broadband services. As part of this effort, the state now offers broadband access programs, including subsidies for broadband services and equipment and deployment of targeted grants for underserved areas.

Looking Forward

Some nonprofit organizations, such as Maine’s Island Institute, promote a community-driven model for addressing broadband service gaps in rural areas. This bottom-up model embraces community engagement as an engine and fosters collaboration among stakeholders who possess technical, political, and funding expertise. Similarly, the Center for Rural Affairs, which publishes the South Dakota Broadband Resource Guide, works with rural communities to improve broadband access. Both agencies recognize the layers of issues associated with bridging the digital divide in rural areas.

Solving the high-speed holdup requires structure, participation of multiple parties, and creativity. Beyond throwing federal money at developing infrastructure, concerted efforts are required at local levels, including developing service providers and increasing digital literacy. Without effective responses to each of these areas and corresponding improvement in access to Internet services, equitable avenues to justice will continue to be delayed.

ABA Section of Dispute Resolution

This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 12 of Dispute Resolution Magazine, September 2023 (29:3).

For more information or to obtain a copy of the periodical in which the full article appears, please call the ABA Service Center at 800/285-2221.

Website: americanbar.org/dispute.

Periodicals: Dispute Resolution Magazine, published three times per year; Just Resolutions, electronic newsletter published ten times per year.

CLE and Other Programs: Annual spring conference; mediation and arbitration institutes; webinars and podcasts; celebratory events including Ombuds Day and Mediation Week.

Books: Litigation Interest and Risk Assessment; Negotiation Essentials for Lawyers; Early Neutral Evaluation; Structured Negotiation: A Winning Alternative to Lawsuits; The Organizational Ombudsman: Origins, Roles and Operations—A Legal Guide; Mental Health and Conflicts: A Handbook for Empowerment.

Entity:
Topic:
The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

Myles Montgomery

Attorney and Social Worker

Myles Montgomery is an attorney and social worker practicing in Sacramento, California.