Broadband availability has been at the heart of the digital divide, with an estimated 21.3 million people lacking access in 2019, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). More than just a lack of internet, broadband availability has to do with the infrastructure needed to connect homes to high speed, reliable internet. There needs to be enough towers, wires, etc. to make the connection possible. Without this infrastructure, communities need to rely on slower, less reliable methods, such as dial-up, to connect to the internet.
Income and location are factors in the availability of broadband. Just ⅔ of rural Americans say that they have a broadband connection in their home, but recent studies have suggested that urban and suburban locations also lack broadband. Low-income families are more likely to be dependent on smartphones for an internet connection (not WiFi) and also lack access to multiple internet-enabled devices (laptops, tablets, etc.). As the pandemic forces most aspects of our lives online, a strong and reliable internet connection is vital — with 87% of Americans saying that having an internet connection is essential or important during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The coronavirus pandemic is significantly highlighting the digital divide in these four areas:
Most schools across the country introduced distance-learning to their classrooms in response to the pandemic. Using video conference tools like Zoom, teachers and students can interact and learn from the safety of their homes. However, not all are finding the process seamless. A lack of internet and a weak connection can make distance-learning frustrating. Dealing with spotty video, missing class due to an outage, kicking others off the home WiFi in the hopes of a better connection, and even going outside the home to find free WiFi are just some of the struggles students and teachers are facing.
Many lower-income families are particularly struggling when trying to get their children online. These parents say that their children will face digital obstacles while trying to do schoolwork:
Our homes are now replacing exam rooms during the pandemic. Seen as the safest option for most appointments that are not emergencies and do not require a hands-on procedure or exam, telehealth appointments are replacing face-to-face appointments. Like any other video conference, a strong internet connection is required for these appointments. And video-chatting aside, most patients need to download video conference software for their appointment. Some may also need to watch training videos about using that software. Without a stable internet connection to support these activities, seeing your doctor has become more difficult.
Already disadvantaged when it came to availability of healthcare before the pandemic, rural communities’ struggles are now exacerbated by a lack of broadband availability. Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association found that broadband availability in rural communities is the biggest barrier to providing high-quality telehealth services. In Michigan, they found that while only 3% of residents in urban areas do not have access to high-speed broadband internet, about 40% of people in the state’s rural areas lack access.
For employees who can do their work from home, Zoom calls and Slack chats have replaced daily in-person communications at the office. However, an unstable internet connection once again gets in the way for some employees trying to work from the safety of their homes. Unable to fully work remotely, employees who live in broadband dead zones cannot perform vital tasks to complete their jobs.
To help their employees stay online while working at home, some companies have sourced hot spots to provide WiFi. While this has been a great solution for some, others simply do not have the infrastructure to support it. And other employees have to rely on their cell phones for a hotspot, which can lead to its own set of problems.
In the era of quarantines, stay-at-home orders, and social distancing, staying connected to friends and family can be a challenge. As our routines changed and “normal” lives were upended due to the virus, millions of us are foregoing non-essential, in-person interactions. Online activities are now the main way to stay connected to loved ones, friends, and communities.
New communities were built online. Kids gamed together on multi-player video games like Fortnite. Home cooks were invited to join virtual cooking classes. Families and individuals ordered groceries and household essentials online for delivery and/or pickup. Fitness enthusiasts found virtual classes to replace working out at gyms. New ways to stay connected and continue normal routines were all built in response to the pandemic — entirely online. Without a reliable internet connection, many individuals and families are shut out of these new communities. They can miss out on the support, connection, and feeling of normalcy that these new avenues provide.
This unique type of isolation might bring about a new kind of fallout that can be attributed to the pandemic: a social recession. In other words, populations that are already most susceptible to isolation, such as older individuals and those with disabilities/preexisting health conditions, will face an even greater threat.
A way forward
One challenge to ensuring communities have access to broadband is the inaccuracies of the broadband maps used by governments and internet providers. These maps show which communities need access and where to build the necessary infrastructure, but existing maps have proven to be insufficient. As the only commercial data provider who has produced an address fabric for a state to update its broadband maps, LightBox is uniquely positioned to help state governments for this purpose. For more information, contact us.