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Installing Free Wi-Fi To Help Count Rural Communities Of Color In 2020 Census

December 3, 20195:00 AM ET

Anthony Hill, Fair Count’s communications associate, posts signs encouraging people to use the free Wi-Fi and apply for 2020 census jobs at ARC Community Center in Fort Gaines, Ga.Hansi Lo Wang/NPR

With fewer than 100 days left before the 2020 census is fully underway, rural communities caught in the digital divide are bracing for a potential undercount that could make it harder for them to advocate for resources over the next decade.

For the first time, the U.S. census will play out primarily online and only about 26% of households — mostly in areas with low Internet subscription rates — are set to receive paper questionnaires either in the mail or hand-delivered to their addresses by mid-March, when all households can take part in the count.

Despite the Census Bureau’s plans, some advocates still worry rural areas could be left behind. In Georgia — the state with the fourth largest black population in the country — an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization called Fair Count has been dispatching Wi-Fi routers and portable hot spots to rural churches and community centers.

So far, the organization has set up free Internet access in more than two dozen African Methodist Episcopal churches and other locations around Georgia. By March, Fair Count expects to have a total of 150 hot spots installed — and it plans to pay for Internet service at least through the end of 2020, months after the federal government stops collecting census responses next summer.