COVID-19 Pandemic Exposes Lack of Rural Broadband Access. How Can it be Fixed?

The global COVID-19 pandemic has spiked the need for rural broadband, but across the U.S. many Americans struggle due to their lack of internet access.

The world has changed in multiple ways since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Kitchen tables have become classrooms, couches have become offices, bedrooms have become breakrooms – the world is racing online as social distancing continues to force many of us to work, learn, communicate and connect in new ways. The coronavirus pandemic has further exposed the digital divide that had already been brewing between rural and urban America. According to the Epoch Times, only 65 percent of rural Americans have access to high-speed internet compared to 97 percent of urban Americans. Not only has this affected the way many of us work from home but rural businesses have been hit with these difficult obstacles as well.

Lack of Broadband Shows Obstacles for Essential Sectors

The Farm Bureau reports that almost 29 percent of U.S. farmers have no access to the internet making it nearly impossible to reach and connect to new markets and customers. Executing broadband accessibility for farmers would be essential for them to be successful during these uncertain times. Farmers have been under major stress to perform at higher levels due to more people shopping at local farmer’s markets and grocery stores instead of eating out. The president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Zippy Duvall, suggests that the streamlining of permits would help narrow the gap between rural and urban areas in broadband access. This would make farmers’ supply chains more efficient when once again connecting with markets and customers.

Another sector that is taking a hard hit from this pandemic is education. Many schools located in rural areas already have difficulties with broadband access and the “homework-gap”, but now the stakes are higher. When teachers and students were sent home in March to complete the school year there was a huge exposure in these areas and the lack of broadband access. The USDA Agriculture and Rural Prosperity Task Force emphasizes the importance of the internet in today’s information-driven economy, and rural students should have the same digital tools and self-paced learning options as urban students. Online learning is the only way students have been able to finish this past school year, and broadband offers a wide array of educational platforms, courses and resources.

The nation's existing program to extend broadband (high-speed internet) has not made the progress that it should have by this point. So, how can the broadband access problem be fixed? Action is needed to close the broadband gap. With accurate data on broadband availability, we recommend taking steps forward in the following areas.

Ensure Networks are Broadband-Capable

Over the past five years, the federal government has provided over $22 billion to support the expansion of rural broadband. Yet, somewhere between six and 12 percent of Americans still do not have access to a quality broadband network. To ensure more accessibility, networks should be required to meet at least the Federal Communications Commission-defined speed for broadband. The connectivity of the network needs to be reliable, have enough bandwidth, and be private and secure against ransomware attacks.

Making Advances in Broadband Mapping

It's important to note that the starting point for effective rural broadband programs is knowing where service is available and where it is not. This requires an accurate broadband map and data set so that resources can be dedicated to those unserved communities where the need is greatest.

The FCC recently took action to improve its broadband data collection practices that will involve fixed broadband providers submitting more granular electronic coverage maps than the current practice. This more intricate data collection will lead to a more comprehensive broadband map and better targeting strategy for federal resources.

Communication and Collaboration

Closing the digital divide and connecting more of rural America to the broadband that they need to be successful in this day and age requires collaboration and innovation across the board. To close the current gaps and connect all Americans, it’s crucial that communities, policymakers, and Internet service providers work together to find lasting solutions. Uniti supports and manages broadband networks. Our wireless networks can range from a specific area of your building to covering your entire campus or municipality.

With the right policies in place and with industry and government working in partnership toward a common purpose, we’ll continue to make progress towards a shared goal of bringing broadband to all Americans.