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KUNC is among the founding partners of the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration of public media stations that serve the Western states of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

It May Take A Pandemic To Finally Bring The Mountain West's Internet 'Dead Zones' Online

A new interactive map released by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration uses aggregated public and private data to show where Americans lack quality internet access throughout the country.

The digital divide in the Mountain West stretches across vast swaths of rural, urban and Native lands and disproportionately affects residents in low-income brackets and people of color. But as federal pandemic relief dollars start flowing into state coffers, the cash is opening up opportunities to dramatically expand broadband access in Western communities and beyond.

President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law in March and it includes at least $20 billion in direct broadband funding. The White House says the plan prioritizes broadband in unserved and underserved areas and offers support for broadband networks owned by governments, co-operatives or nonprofits “that have less pressure to turn profits.”

Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the law is “the most significant investment in broadband infrastructure in the country's history at the federal level.”

While the inequities wrought by the digital divide are hardly new, the pandemic made the need for reliable internet access even clearer, Tomer said. Advocates have long worked to grab the attention of policymakers and help them understand “just how challenging it is for certain people to access the internet and all of the intended benefits it delivers.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, Tomer said, has served as “the wake-up call that those advocates have been waiting for, whether it was children who were unable to log on for school, families that weren't able to see their older family members,” as well as people who were not able to telecommute to work because they lacked access to high-speed internet.

“That’s when we really started to understand as a country that broadband internet is not a luxury good,” Tomer said.

States can also use money designated in the American Rescue Plan for other infrastructure to pay for broadband.

Montana is allocating $275 million in federal funds to expand broadband access. One in three residents lack access to broadband there, according to the Federal Communications Commission. In Montana’s rural communities three out of every five residents are affected.

“Greater access to broadband will increase opportunities for Montanans, whether in ag or high-tech or other Montana industries, but we need to get more cable in the ground,” Gov. Greg Gianforte said in May after signing into law the ConnectMT Act. “Today, we make a historic investment to close the digital divide.”

Tomer, for his part, hopes that Montana and other states will go even further in their commitments to addressing digital equity.

“We're going to look back, and two, three, four years from now and recognize that this was the moment when we started really making that down payment from the federal to the local level to finally bridge the digital divide,” he said.

On June 17, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration published a new interactive map with a range of public and private datasets that together highlight the vast needs for broadband across the country.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I am an investigative reporter on KUNC's investigative desk. I'm interested in our region's appetite for — and aversion to — equity, whether that's in housing, healthcare, education, politics or policy.