As Elizabeth Bowles zooms down Route 65 in her black SUV, she’s pointing out possible “vertical assets” on the flat horizon of browned cornfields and the occasional Dollar General. Out here in the Arkansas Delta, the rural area west of the Mississippi River, a vertical asset could be a tall flagpole, or a granary, or the smokestacks of a paper mill—anything high enough for Bowles’s scrappy broadband company, Aristotle Unified Communications LLC, to rig up with telecommunications equipment so it can zap the internet to far-flung customers. “See that water tank up above the pine trees?” she asks. “If you put a radio antenna on top, you can hit everything that it can see.”
Bowles is showing off her whatever-it-takes strategy for narrowing the digital divide between people with reasonably speedy internet access and those without. This gap has remained stubbornly persistent for decades, even as the internet has become steadily more inextricable from daily life, business, health care, and education. Research group BroadbandNow estimates that 42 million Americans have no broadband access, while a depressing 120 million people in the U.S. are without any connection fast enough to even call the internet, according to an October 2020 study by Microsoft Corp. These disparities are particularly severe among Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, and rural communities.