In the United States, data on which homes have access to the internet is flawed and unreliable. However, one conclusion proves consistent throughout the research: the numbers are nowhere near where they should be.
Organizations such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the US Census Bureau, as well as major technology providers, have reported varying percentages of people with internet access in the U.S. This means that the actual number of people connected and the degree of their connectivity I am unknown. Many experts believe the numbers are lower than those reported, said Mark Buell, North American regional vice president for the Internet Society, a nonprofit organization that provides Internet connectivity to marginalized communities globally. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the inconsistencies in these numbers.
According to the FCC, more than 90% of U.S. citizens have access to high-speed broadband, which the agency defines as 25 Mbps download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds. Meanwhile, a 2019 Microsoft report said that this number is just under 50% of US citizens. Furthermore, these reports – both cited in an Internet Society paper titled “The Impact of Internet Access in Indigenous Communities in Canada and the United States” – do not show the discrepancies between rural and urban Internet access in the United States. United States, Buell said.
As remote working remains important – and likely will continue to be the result of COVID-19 – internet connectivity and broadband access become more critical in enabling all people to work and learn from home.
“Since the 1990s, the Internet community has done a great job of connecting people,” Buell said. “Just over half of the world’s population is now online … in a short period of time – 20 to 25 years. But the remaining half are the people in the communities who are the hardest to connect.”
Effect of COVID-19 on Internet connectivity
Although definitive research has not yet been published on the effect of COVID-19 on exactly who has internet access in the United States, it is clear that the pandemic has drastically changed network traffic patterns and overwhelmed many home networks. Videoconferencing, a staple of remote working and remote learning, requires more bandwidth, which most home networks are not designed to support.
Despite the connectivity complications of COVID-19, the pandemic has at least one positive outcome, according to Buell: the importance of Internet connectivity in times of crisis has been underlined.
“It allowed students to continue their studies at home. It allowed millions of Americans to work from home,” Buell said. “It has clearly become a key part of infrastructure across the country.”
The internet is also crucial in both national and global economic recovery from the pandemic. Various services have been moved online, including retail and grocery shopping, as well as distance learning and distance working for businesses. In many cases, a strong Internet connection has proven to be as effective as corporate office networks and shopping malls, which means that many remote workers are unwilling to return to the office and customers can shop online and safely from home.
Mark BuellRegional Vice President of North America, Internet Society
“A number of companies have basically said they no longer see the place for a physical office when all you really need is a strong Internet connection,” Buell said. And he believes the internet will play a much more important role in business and education in the years to come.
This also assumes that everyone has access to the internet in the United States, which is not true. Even if the FCC data wasn’t flawed – something an FCC commissioner admitted – the word access it can have several meanings. A remote worker may have access to the Internet through libraries or cafes, but not necessarily from home. In the midst of a pandemic with strict lockdown restrictions, people without home internet connectivity may not be able to work or attend school remotely.
Internet access in rural and urban areas in the United States
Remote workers in rural or low-income urban areas face unique challenges to internet access in the United States
Rural areas in particular face a challenge in obtaining broadband internet access due to cost and location, which means these areas are less likely to have a local ISP nearby to provide the connectivity. A Native Hawaiian community in Pu’uhonua O Waimānalo built – with the help of the Internet Society – and now maintains its own community network, which allowed residents to work and learn from home even before the pandemic.
“Having the internet here, we don’t have to leave this place. Now we can make money from home. We can do business from home. I mean, it just means freedom for us,” said Duchess Maikai, Pu’uhonua O Waimānalo Resident, in a NowThis video about the community.
If the community didn’t have this network when the pandemic hit, they wouldn’t have been equipped to manage the transition to remote work and remote learning, Buell said. Residents often took children to local fast food restaurants to complete schoolwork online, and two or more people sharing a connection in a home led to poor network performance.
Now, Buell said, this native community is a prime example of how Internet access can enable communities to thrive in a time of crisis.
In urban areas, cities like Philadelphia have partnered with suppliers – Comcast, in the case of Philadelphia – to provide essential Internet connectivity and, occasionally, equipment to low-income homes so students can go to school virtually. This can also benefit adults in those homes so that they can work remotely if their jobs and employers have this accessibility.
Urban areas often have a local ISP that already operates in certain neighborhoods, so the main problem in these areas is affordability. The cost of reliable internet access often prevents students from receiving an education and remote workers working from home, which is a health and safety concern in the midst of a pandemic.
Some political campaigns have addressed broadband and internet access in the United States, but internet connectivity still fails to become an important part of the US political narrative. Not only could new internet services help the US economy, but dedicating resources to internet connectivity in marginalized communities can enable people to work and learn from home more efficiently, both during and after a pandemic.
“It is now more evident than ever that the Internet is an important part of our society, and we really need to put the resources behind that,” Buell said.