By Joy Wiltermuth
It is tempting to imagine throngs of urban dwellers fleeing high-price cities to take up work remote in bucolic corners of America due to the coronavirus pandemic and the widespread availability of broadband internet.
But for swaths of rural America, the digital divide still means it is tough to work from home, dial up a doctor for a video appointment, or for children to learn remotely.
In rural America the pandemic has made connectivity issues worse, despite decades of trying and tens of billions in federal subsidies aimed at broadly deploying broadband across rural communities, where poverty, and disappearing businesses and family farms have become the norm, forcing the young to leave town for brighter horizons.
It isn’t that the internet doesn’t exist in remote outposts, where families often live many miles apart, but that the costs of connecting, supplying and maintaining adequate high-speed broadband service have been outrun by increasingly digital lives.
“What we’ve learned in the pandemic is that speeds we thought were sufficient, are nowhere near sufficient,” said Shirley Bloomfield, chief executive officer of the NTCA – the Rural Broadband Association , an industry group of small-town and community-based telecoms.
“Instead of a burst of demand during the week from six to nine at night, we now see a steady stream of demand all day long,” she told MarketWatch.
The pandemic exposed how crucial broadband has become for big cities and U.S. economic growth, but also small towns, where reliable and affordable internet can mean the difference between access to an education and health care or not, particularly when the nearest doctor easily could be a 60-mile drive away.
Service and speed
The U.S. has been working to achieve “universal” broadband for all Americans, like the postal service, in the decades since it was set out by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Yet, a new report estimates that 42 million Americans still lack access to broadband internet, according to research firm and connectivity tracker BroadbandNow. That is about double the most recent tally from the Federal Communications Commission, the main regulator of America’s airwaves.
BroadbandNow points to flaws in the FCC’s approach to counting internet connections that result in a sizable overcount per each census block. Specifically, if one household in a census block has a connection, the FCC considers the entire neighborhood covered, a method that doesn’t reflect the actual dearth of service.
Tyler Cooper, BroadbandNow’s editor in chief, also thinks the FCC’s existing minimum broadband standards have become outdated. Right now, the FCC requires broadband customers to be supplied with a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second and 3 mbps for uploads, thresholds it set in 2015. Cooper wants to see the standard being at least 100 mbps for downloads and 50 to 100 mbps for uploads.
“The upload number is pretty important, because that determines if you can do Zoom /zigman2/quotes/211319643/composite ZM +2.43% calls or other two-way communication,” Cooper told MarketWatch, adding that while 25 mbps allows for basic internet browsing, most work-centric applications have become “a lot more demanding of resources.”
Can the digital divide be fixed? The NTCA’s Bloomfield has become more hopeful, based on meetings with President Biden’s transition team, that the new administration finally can make a difference on rural broadband in ways that help prevent small towns from sliding further backward.
“It isn’t a red or blue state issue,” Bloomfield said, noting that Congress already funds rural broadband projects, including recently with a focus on vetting providers, but also through a new mapping initiative to better pinpoint existing services, speeds and potholes, through funding from last year’s coronavirus aid packages.
“Every senator has a rural part of their state,” she added.