Expert Commentary

Rural broadband in the time of coronavirus

Americans who can telework are avoiding the office due to the coronavirus pandemic. But not everyone can telework, because they lack stable broadband access. Many of those who lack broadband live in rural areas.

(Ross Sneddon / Unsplash)

Starr Gilmartin, 63, lives with her husband in Trenton, Maine. She’s a social worker in this rural town of about 1,500 near Bar Harbor. Gilmartin uses telehealth technology to help psychiatrists evaluate their patients. At Northern Light Acadia Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Bangor about a 35-mile drive from Trenton, she connects by video conference to patients and psychiatrists sometimes based in other parts of the country.

In this time of pandemic caused by a new coronavirus, systems that many rely on daily, like health care and education, are unraveling. Americans who can telework are avoiding the office, bringing the inequality of telework into high relief. Eventually, there may be silver linings. For now, the pandemic continues to leave average Americans increasingly exposed to a variety of sudden challenges.

“Everything is connected,” says Gilmartin. “It’s like the thread of a sweater.”

With her job in telehealth, it stands to reason that Gilmartin would be among the ranks now working from home. But she can’t. Her broadband is too unreliable. Broadband is high-speed internet that allows people to do things like videoconference through applications like Zoom, Skype and Cisco WebEx. People who lack stable broadband, or broadband access at all, tend to live in rural areas.

“I worked in a refugee camp in Lesbos, in Greece, and I could walk down the street and connect with broadband to my husband, I could do Zoom with my husband,” she says from her home in Maine, the most rural state in the U.S. according to Census data. “I couldn’t do that here.”

Gilmartin will have to keep going to Acadia Hospital to work. She says there aren’t enough face masks for staff like her, who don’t physically interact with patients. That might increase her chances of contracting COVID-19, the disease the new coronavirus causes. She isn’t worried about herself. But her husband has a pre-existing health condition, which could make him more ill if he gets COVID-19. Still, many of her coworkers are in a similar situation.

“If I don’t do it then I’m pushing somebody else into that position who has the same sort of risks and challenges — kids at home, an elderly parent or whatever,” she says.

Millions of Americans lack broadband access

More than 21 million people in America lack advanced broadband internet access, according to the latest broadband deployment report from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. The FCC defines “advanced” broadband as download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second with upload speeds of 3 mbps, a baseline that experts call “25-3” for short.

“If you’re getting your internet connection from what’s called DSL, which is the type of broadband connection telephone companies use, it is not fast broadband,” says Christopher Ali, associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who researches rural broadband issues. “But it can hit 25-3 sometimes. It’s so telephone companies don’t have to switch out their wires. There’s no reason why 25-3 is the standard.”

Landline telephone companies offer broadband through DSL, or Digital Subscriber Lines, which run over copper telephone wires. Broadband delivered through fiber optic cables is substantially faster than DSL. Fiber optic cables are made up of thin glass fibers that convert electrical data into light. Satellite and cable connections — the same ones that bring cable television into homes — are other common methods of broadband delivery.

About 94% of the U.S. population has broadband access. Arkansas is the least connected of all the states, according to FCC data. Seventy-seven percent of people there have access to advanced broadband. Connecticut and New Jersey are tops. Ninety-nine percent of their populations have access to advanced broadband.

Maine has 93% broadband access. Still, access and reliability are two different things — flip sides of the connectivity coin. Gilmartin says her broadband fluctuates unpredictably, from download speeds of 80 mbps down to 8 mbps. At the high end, she can teleconference. At the low end, there’s no way.

Roberto Gallardo, assistant director of the Center for Regional Development at Purdue University, agrees that the pandemic is making it clear the federal government’s standard for advanced broadband doesn’t reflect modern internet usage, like video conferencing.

“Urban folks who may still have parents that live in rural areas, they are going to realize — oh snap, they don’t have the adequate connectivity to do telehealth, to communicate with them,” Gallardo says.

See how broadband in your county stacks up with this interactive map from Gallardo and Richard Florida, University Professor at the School of Cities at the University of Toronto.

Ali says the FCC data are not comprehensive, and the number of Americans without reliable broadband is likely higher by millions than what the FCC reports. To demonstrate, he points to a study from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a legislative agency of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. In 2018, the center reported results from 11 million broadband speed tests across the state.

At the time of the study, FCC data showed all of Pennsylvania had access to broadband speeds beyond the federal threshold, according to the center’s report. But the research team, led by telecommunications professor Sascha Meinrath at The Pennsylvania State University, found there were no counties in the state — none — where at least half of people had access to the FCC’s speed standard.

Rural Pennsylvania fared worst for broadband speeds in the report.

“The main implications stemming from the research findings are that successfully addressing the digital divide will require a variety of tactics, some old, but many new,” Meinrath and his co-authors write. “Major investments in both the documentation of on-the-ground realities, as well as directly in infrastructure, should be considered.”

Telework haves and have-nots

Under normal circumstances, about 7% of U.S. employees have a flexible workplace, with the option of working part- or full-time from home. That’s according to the most recent Employee Benefits Survey of nearly 8,000 businesses conducted in March 2019 by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The survey included workers in private industry and state and local governments, who make up the bulk of the nation’s 165 million-person civilian labor force.

White-collar workers are much more likely to have a telework option. One percent of service workers can telework, compared with 22% of employees with jobs in management, business or finance. The telework option also tracks with paycheck size. Twenty-one percent of people whose wages put them in the top 10% of earners can telework, compared with 1% of people with the lowest 10% of wages, according to the BLS.

Then there is the telework gap by educational attainment. Before the new coronavirus, 12% of high school graduates over age 25 without any college worked from home on a typical day, according to the 2018 release of results from a nationally representative BLS survey. Compare that with 37% of those who have at least a bachelor’s degree, and 42% with an advanced degree.

When it comes to race and ethnicity, 37% of Asian people and 30% of white people have a telework option, compared with about 20% of black people and 16% of Hispanic people, according to BLS data.

Almost everyone with a job that offers a telework option is now teleworking due to the coronavirus pandemic. But being able to telework requires more than an office job — it requires stable broadband.

The ‘six pillars’ of rural broadband

Ali makes the case for rural broadband through what he calls the “six pillars” of rural broadband. The first pillar is economic development. Housing values increase and businesses move more product when rural communities have broadband, he says.

The second is public health. “I think we forget there’s a shortage of doctors and health centers in rural America,” he says. “We are asking people to social distance. What happens when you have to drive 50 miles to a health center versus being able to Skype with a health care provider?”

Teleworking is the third pillar. Education is the fourth. Before the pandemic, some 70% of primary and secondary school teachers assigned homework online, according to an op-ed from FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. The homework gap — that refers to kids who can’t do online homework at home because they don’t have internet access — is now extending to higher education.

“There’s a massive gap here and we’re seeing it exposed clearly with COVID-19,” Ali says. “I teach at a wealthy public university and not all of my students have broadband.”

The fifth pillar is public safety, having to do with emergency response call lines that rely on broadband. “You talk with any rural police officer or county police officer, they encounter dead zones,” he says.

The sixth is that broadband improves quality of life for rural communities. Having broadband “means that rural communities become an option for young people,” Ali says. “There’s less of a push to leave if you can do everything from a distance. A number of people would make that choice.”

Gallardo sums up the case for rural broadband with an appeal to basic humanity: “In the end, from a philosophical standpoint, we are all on this rock. We’re all on this rock — that should settle the discussion.”

A ‘reluctant regulator’

Lack of infrastructure is one reason millions of rural Americans don’t have fast broadband. A little-known agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture called the Rural Utilities Service is responsible for “wiring rural America,” Ali and research assistant Mark Duemmel write in a May 2019 paper published in Telecommunications Policy. They call the RUS a “reluctant regulator.”

The RUS has a significant purse for improving rural broadband infrastructure. It awards nearly $800 million in annual loans and grants to municipalities, tribes, nonprofit, for-profit and other entities, with a total telecom portfolio of $4 billion, according to Ali and Duemmel. Among other things, the loans and grants pay for infrastructure improvements, like installing fiber optic cables.

Ali and Duemmel write that, “RUS flirts with being a regulator at certain times, a policymaker more broadly, a passive stakeholder at other points.”

To understand how the agency perceives its legitimacy to address rural broadband challenges, Ali and Duemmel examined more than 10,000 pages of RUS policy documents from 1996 to 2019. They combined their document analysis with takeaways from 36 interviews with current and former RUS officials that Ali previously conducted.

From the document review and interviews, Ali and Duemmel conclude that the RUS sees itself more as a bank than a regulator, though “its legal authority and narratives of legitimacy suggest it is much more than a bank,” they write.

For example, the RUS falls in line with the FCC’s broadband speed standard. But the RUS has the explicit ability to set its own minimum standards for broadband speeds, according to the authors. For now, the RUS remains a “‘latent’ stakeholder — one with the potential for high influence but without consistent action,” Ali and Duemmel conclude.

State solutions

Every state in the U.S. has some form of task force, commission or project to improve broadband, including for rural areas. Some states are setting targets for broadband speeds faster than the federal standard.

“I think it’s going to be glaringly obvious that infrastructure needs to be upgraded,” Gallardo says. “And with it will come a higher expectation for speed.”

Minnesota is one state leading the charge for higher rural broadband speeds, Gallardo says. By 2026, the state is aiming for all homes and businesses there to have access to at least one broadband provider that offers download speeds of at least 100 mbps — four times faster than the federal baseline. North Carolina also has a plan for improving broadband availability and usage there. Wisconsin wants everyone there to have access to internet service that meets the federal speed standard by 2025.

Then there is the cost. The Maine Department of Economic and Community Development estimates the price tag for deploying broadband across the state would be at least $1.6 billion. That doesn’t include the cost of connecting from the fiber cable in the street to a subscriber’s home.

It would take a $150 billion investment in fiber infrastructure to modernize rural broadband across the country, according to Deloitte Consulting, part of the international accounting and professional services firm Deloitte. In rural areas, 61% of residents have access to the federal baseline for download speed, finds Deloitte’s 2017 analysis, and rural customers sometimes pay three times more than suburban customers for broadband.

Contrast the estimated cost of bringing broadband to all of rural America with the size of the $2 trillion economic relief package President Donald Trump signed on March 27.

“On the infrastructure side, it may sound expensive but in the context of an emergency, like now, it’s after all not that expensive,” Gallardo says. “So it’s just a matter of political will, really, that’s holding back the infrastructure. It will require all hands on deck and multiple technologies. It will require multiple players to come to the table to figure this out.”

Boston College law professor Daniel Lyons, who specializes in telecommunications law, explained in Congressional testimony last May that there aren’t enough potential customers in some rural areas to cover the provider costs.

“To narrow the broadband availability gap, the government should prioritize those territories where a one-time investment will yield sustainable network growth,” Lyons told federal legislators.

How rural communities get by

Eight of the nation’s major internet service providers have announced various steps to improve broadband speeds and connectivity during the pandemic, after 18 U.S. senators called on them to do so in mid-March. The providers are doing things like raising caps on data bandwidth, or offering two months of free broadband to households with students.

If rural America returns to broadband as usual, it will mean public institutions like libraries sometimes serving as the only broadband link for communities.

“We did a whole lot of fieldwork in northern Maine and Kansas in the last couple of years and we found a lot of rural libraries left their Wi-Fis on overnight because they were the only source of some kind of connectivity,” says Sharon Strover, communications professor at The University of Texas at Austin and director of the university’s Technology & Information Policy Institute.

With the Association for Rural & Small Libraries recommending that rural libraries close until the coronavirus pandemic is under control, some rural communities are getting creative. Per Education Week, education officials in South Carolina are sending out hundreds of school buses equipped as Wi-Fi hotspots to rural and low-income neighborhoods. People can drive near or walk up to a hotspot bus and get connected. Officials in Austin, Texas are doing the same, equipping all school buses with Wi-Fi. Libraries, schools and other municipal buildings in Vermont are leaving on their Wi-Fi.

While rural communities find ways to keep residents connected, the only thing certain right now is that there is a great deal of uncertainty. The new coronavirus has pulled hard at a thread of the nation’s patchwork sweater, leaving some Americans exposed to an onrush of climactic change. But for rural Americans who want reliable broadband, there is the potential for opportunity in crisis.

“This is going to increase inequality big time because of so many people being out of work, while people with steadier jobs can do their jobs from home and continue to draw paychecks,” Strover says. “One silver lining might be a broader recognition of how central broadband connectivity is, so policymakers can get off the, ‘Let the companies provide it,’ bandwagon they have been on for so long, and recognize that normal supply-and-demand economics don’t work with critical infrastructure. We need the state to step in and we need some guaranteed and regulated thresholds of service.”

Check out the rest of our coverage of how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the economy and education in the U.S.

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