Return to Overview

A Rewarding Challenge: Achieving Digital Equity in Rural and Indigenous Communities

A Rewarding Challenge: Achieving Digital Equity in Rural and Indigenous Communities

Roughly 46 million, or 14% of the country’s population, live in rural America. People living in these areas face unique challenges stemming from their physical isolation, including limited job opportunities and decreased access to goods and services, all of which impact their quality of life. Economic data reflects this problem – Americans in rural and indigenous communities face disproportionately higher levels of poverty compared to their urban counterparts.

Tyson Johnston

Quick Take:

  • 14% of Americans living in rural areas face challenges when it comes to quality internet access, which negatively affects their daily lives, job opportunities, and overall standard of living
  • The costs of installing broadband infrastructure in sparsely populated areas such as these often outweigh the revenue potential, leaving these communities with few alternatives 
  • Companies can partner with government agencies and community leaders to collaboratively find ways to offer broadband connectivity, which will bridge the digital divide for these communities and generate meaningful long-term economic impact in the process
Internet Access: An Uphill Battle

Roughly 46 million, or 14% of the country’s population, live in rural America. People living in these areas face unique challenges stemming from their physical isolation, including limited job opportunities and decreased access to goods and services, all of which impact their quality of life. Economic data reflects this problem – Americans in rural and indigenous communities face disproportionately higher levels of poverty compared to their urban counterparts.

Internet access is a valuable tool in overcoming the challenges of isolation in rural areas, but, unfortunately, this same population is plagued by inconsistent, lower quality access to the internet. Some lack internet access altogether. And thus, these same people are affected disproportionately by the digital divide. 

The consequences of the digital divide are harsh: a lower quality of education, which bears out in standardized test scores. According to Keith Hampton, professor in the Media and Information Department at Michigan State University: “Because of lower interest in school and less success at homework completion, students with poorer access to the internet tend to do worse on [exams such as the SAT].” This correlation between substandard internet access is also reflected in high school graduation rates.

People without reliable internet access, particularly those without high school diplomas, have lower income opportunities and higher rates of unemployment compared to other cohorts. This is one of the primary contributing factors for why people in rural and indigenous areas have more people living under the poverty line and living there for longer periods of time. Their lack of digital access offers few options to improve their earning potential. Likewise, there are other implications for their quality of life, including decreased access to quality healthcare options, such as telehealth and mental health services.

In some underserved areas, although internet access is available, a lack of price competition combined with lower earnings makes it unaffordable for many people. Those that do eventually get access face the challenge of catching up to the rest of the world. Many lack the digital literacy skills needed for personal and professional online activities and don’t have people around them to instruct them how to make full use of the internet.

Why the Issue Persists

Though every connectivity option has pros and cons, broadband – particularly the fastest broadband option, fiber – has increasingly become the widespread standard in most of the developed world, thanks to its reliability and speed. However, building fiber and other complex connectivity infrastructure requires a massive upfront investment. These projects, therefore, often require cooperation between state and private organizations to co-finance or even subsidize the build in areas where the density of customers makes profitability on such a project impossible. Simply put, without co-financing, grants, or other financial benefits in place to offset the substantial initial building costs, bringing broadband infrastructure to certain remote areas would lose money. This complicated business dynamic leaves inhabitants in this area stuck with limited options and greater costs associated with obtaining internet access. 

Companies and governments have tried to make progress to bridge the digital divide in other ways, but their solutions have fallen short of having long-term impact. Since the big-picture issue with infrastructure is difficult to solve, most investments are smaller in scope and end up being short-term solutions, such as wifi-equipped buses, internet-equipped hot air balloons, and computer donation programs. These help, but they’re band-aids on a much larger issue. Without a foundation of underlying broadband infrastructure, the well-meaning benefits of these programs only serve as temporary solutions, with minimal longer term impact. The core challenge remains: waiting for someone to solve it.

“For families across the country, a reliable internet connection is critical to be able to get an education, apply for jobs, and so much more. And as we connect more and more families to high-speed internet, we also have to make sure people have the tools and skills they need to make full use of their connection...particularly in rural and underserved communities across the country.” - U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington)
What Does it Take To Build a Broadband Network?

The infrastructure behind broadband internet is broadly categorized into three parts, similar to any delivery system. A simple analogy could be the differences between a major interstate, a smaller highway, and local roads. Roads, like internet infrastructure, have different capacities, but all are connected together to be able to deliver things from one point to another.

  • The first mile: this part of the network refers to the large subsea cables that transmit data. This is the ten-lane interstate.
  • The middle mile: as the name suggests, this is in the center of the infrastructure, this is where coastal cable landing stations connect spread access to larger “anchors” –  high-capacity fiber optic cables that cover long distances. This is the main street.
  • The last mile: this is the final leg of the connectivity journey, the local roads, the way in which broadband internet reaches individual homes and businesses. These are the side roads that lead to homes and businesses.

Despite the challenges, there is hope for progress in closing the digital divide in these underserved areas. Toptana Technologies, a company launched by the Quinault Indian Nation (QIN), is one exciting example of how that can be done. By using the tribe’s prime coastal access, as well as the unique benefits of sovereignty, this industrious group of people is solving its own digital divide problem.

A Partnered Path Forward

This is an opportunity for companies to seek out partners in rural and indigenous territories and collaborate with them to explore what solutions are most impactful and feasible. A coalition of strong stakeholders can come up with a plan and then work together to secure the necessary funding and grants to make the project financially feasible.

Other indigenous nations, even those without coastal access, can look at Toptana as an example of how their digital divide challenges can be overcome by responsibly using their own terrain, resources, and legal sovereignty to both solve their connectivity problems and create a sustainable new revenue stream.

A Rewarding Goal

There are many indigenous and rural communities like QIN around the world who will benefit from improvements like these. These communities will, in turn, begin to have greater purchasing power, form new businesses, and begin to build more robust economies. According to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond in 2020, “broadband access and adoption in rural areas is linked to increased job and population growth, higher rates of new business formation and home values, and lower unemployment rates.” 

The economic impact of bridging this digital divide is potentially substantial. In fact, according to a 2019 study commissioned by Amazon and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, improving access to digital technology for rural businesses could contribute more than $140 billion to the U.S. economy over the next three years and create more than 360,000 full-time jobs in rural communities.

Federal and state funding is also available to help offset the capital required to undertake these types of projects – funds such as the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which has $20.4 billion in funds allocated to investments in broadband structures from 2020 to 2030 – exist specifically to help subsidize these kinds of important projects to make the undertaking less risky for willing firms. In states such as Louisiana, these funds will be used for planning broadband infrastructure. Some states, such as Georgia, have used these funds in conjunction with other federal funding and incentives to similarly expand broadband in rural areas. By maximizing any funds, grants, and tax incentives available, projects such as these can become substantially more affordable, making profitability more attainable.

And, despite the assumption that these types of projects are loss leaders, research shows that there is potential for profitability. According to the Brookings Institution, citing a Perdue University study,  “a cost-benefit analysis of rural broadband installation in Indiana observed three to four-fold returns on investment, not including state and local governments’ cost savings on medical expenditures and additional tax revenues from increased incomes.” These may be longer term benefits, but their effects could be substantial for the larger economy.

Hopes for a Brighter, More Connected Future

While the digital divide still exists for many groups today, projects such as these create hope that the right legislation, right partnerships and right funding, when combined with the technical expertise and the willingness to fight for bold progress, can create a digital future that will transform the lives of millions while also generating tangible business value. Toptana Technologies, a venture founded and fully owned by the Quinault Indian Nation, is excited to pave a path forward in closing the digital divide for its own community, as well as other digitally underserved communities in the Pacific Northwest. Solutions such as these will transform the lives of not just the 46 million Americans living in remote areas but other isolated communities around the world.

Final Thoughts:

  • The digital divide is a major challenge for people in rural and indigenous areas, but one in serious need of fixing.
  • Complex, capital-intensive infrastructure projects such as broadband expansion are feasible when a coalition of resources and partners from the private sector, public sector, and local communities work together
  • Bridging the digital divide for these 46 million people will improve their quality of life, education, and economic prospects, which will spur a positive ripple effect within local economies

Looking to learn more about how to make a real impact in digitally underserved communities? Get in touch. 


About Toptana Technologies 

Toptana is driven by a vision of a truly connected world. We’re an indigenous-owned internet infrastructure and technology company focused on bringing connectivity to unserved and under-served communities. Our mission is to connect the digitally disconnected so that all people can fully participate in the digital economy. 

Our Washington State cable landing station offers subsea transpacific connectivity from the U.S. to Asia-Pacific markets. The backhaul network offers terrestrial connectivity along the I-5 corridor to Seattle, WA and Hillsboro, OR. We offer businesses the opportunity to get their traffic where it needs to go while protecting our precious resources and improving the lives of those in need.