The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:
When COVID-19 forced schools to close in March, the Tucson Unified School District quickly transitioned to online classes. Many students quickly adjusted, but too many others were left behind.
As the district quickly provided laptops, it found many families had no way to connect them. Internet service is scant on the Pascua Yaqui reservation, served by the district. In the city limits, low-income families can’t afford broadband or find budget-rate service unreliable.
Now the district is considering paying for high-speed internet for kids who need it as if it were a utility bill, District Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said on a recent webcast. Other districts are considering similar approaches, but is that really where the responsibility should lie? We help low-income families pay their electricity bills. Broadband is every bit as essential.
Across Arizona, 200,000 to 335,500 students and nearly 5,000 teachers lack high-speed internet service in their homes because of cost or unavailability.
The situation is especially acute in rural areas. Our state ranks a distant 51st for rural fixed-broadband deployment, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Three-fifths of rural residents have no access to ground-based broadband, as reflected in the Arizona We Want Progress Meters. What service exists is often unreliable.
As a result:
• Farmers are shortchanged. Wireless broadband powers the aerial images, GPS technology and temperature/moisture sensors that make agriculture more efficient, profitable and environmentally friendly. Yuma farmers told Gov. Doug Ducey in January that what improvements they’ve seen aren’t keeping up with the demand.
• Telemedicine is impossible. In cities, patients can safely and conveniently visit the doctor via video. In rural areas, they instead face long trips and thus see doctors less frequently.
• Indian communities are further isolated. It wasn’t until this year that the federal government gave tribal entities an opportunity to license a small slice of spectrum to set up their own community broadband networks.
• Law enforcement is hamstrung. Body-worn cameras, gunshot monitoring, license-plate reading and other transformative technologies depend on reliable broadband.
Efforts to bridge the divide have been slow. Ducey commissioned creation of a broadband plan in 2017. The state put up $14 million last fiscal year (but none this year) to leverage federal money that extends broadband to rural schools and helps rural communities build infrastructure. It has hardly moved the needle.
The Legislature gave the cold shoulder to the governor’s “Smart Highway Corridors” proposal to place fiber-optic cables along interstate right-of-way as an incentive for providers to lay the final leg of broadband to rural communities. Creatively, Ducey now plans to use $40 million in federal CARES Act funding to lay cables along I-19 to Nogales and a portion of 1-17.
The Legislature let rural electric co-ops, which are concentrated in Southern Arizona, string fiber-optic cables next to their electric lines. Like Ducey’s plan, this creates “middle mile” connections to communities so providers can extend service into homes and businesses.
The next hurdle is building the “final mile,” which depends on public policy to enable and accelerate private investment.
Urban legislators need to support their rural neighbors. City leaders have a role, too. A municipality needs a formal broadband strategy to qualify for federal broadband funds. Many don’t have one, even though the Arizona Commerce Authority has programs and experts to help. Town and city leaders who fail to act are failing their citizens, who will be left behind without broadband.
Arizona cannot be fully successful if a substantial portion of our residents are left out of the 21st century economy. The digital divide is holding Arizona back. It’s time to close it.
Sybil Francis is president and CEO of the Center for the Future of Arizona, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.