Who's Not Online in America Today?

Expert says COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need to expand broadband access

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Who's Not Online in America Today?
Kathryn de Wit of The Pew Charitable Trusts moderates a briefing on broadband research in Washington, D.C.
Lexey Swall/The Pew Charitable Trusts

Having access to reliable, high-speed internet is not a reality for many millions of people across the United States. With so many of Americans’ day-to-day tasks—such as learning and working—relying on broadband access, what are communities doing to get more people connected? 

Pew’s “After the Fact” podcast host, Dan LeDuc, spoke with Kathryn de Wit, manager of Pew’s broadband research initiative, to hear about the challenges that communities face in bridging the digital divide. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.  

Q. Let’s understand the basics first. What is broadband internet?

A. The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as high-speed reliable internet at speeds of 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload. You can get those connections via fiber, wireless, satellite, DSL, or cable connections. These speeds are the numbers that matter, especially as they tie into public funding for broadband and, of course, how we measure someone's connection. According to the FCC, one user on one device connected at 25 megabits per second can do most activities, including streaming videos. But as soon as you have multiple users on multiple devices, with one trying to send email while another is surfing the internet or someone else is trying to watch a video, your need for speed drastically increases.

Q. How many Americans don’t have access to the internet today?

A. The FCC estimates that at least 21 million Americans don't have access to the internet across the country. But other estimates, including one from Microsoft, put that number as high as 162 million.

The vast majority of these unconnected Americans are in rural areas. This problem, however, affects communities of all types and locations, including urban, suburban, rural, and remote communities. There are parts of those communities that can have excellent connections while others either have slow internet or no internet connection at all.  

Unfortunately, connections don't just fly through the air. Infrastructure development across multiple policy areas and multiple levels of government is at the core of this challenge.

Q. The coronavirus pandemic is propelling this policy issue to the forefront with so many adults working from home, children taking classes online, and medical professionals seeing patients mostly through virtual visits. What’s happening now to the people who do not have broadband access?

A. In this new normal, we are seeing this problem acutely, because the community centers, schools, libraries—places where people could normally access the internet—are closed. With these locations shuttered, we’ve seen some creative temporary solutions. Buses have been equipped with Wi-Fi and parked in school and library parking lots, for example. This allows area residents to drive up and get online. We're also seeing libraries and schools rent out hot spots and laptops.

Typically, schools and libraries that have received funding from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to help create and maintain their networks are not permitted to have those wireless networks on outside of operating hours. But in late March, the FCC adjusted the restrictions to allow greater access beyond traditional hours. 

In the state of Washington, they’re setting up drive-in Wi-Fi hot spots where residents can drive up to a mobile hot spot and utilize the connection as long as needed, and then the next person uses it.

These are much-needed bandages for the current situation. However, the need for a broader long-term solution is critical.

Q.  Which states have been successful in expanding broadband access?

A. There isn’t a universal, one-size-fits-all solution for every state, as a variety of factors contribute to limited access. Each state has different policy environments and different levels of available resources. They also have varied provider landscapes and geographies that can limit or facilitate opportunities for connections.

But some states have seen success. North Carolina launched a statewide planning initiative in 2015. After interviewing more than 3,500 stakeholders across the state—ranging from business and government leaders to internet service providers and citizens—researchers found that people were anxious to bridge the digital divide, but it also became clear that the state needed public resources to help do that. They also identified that there was a homework gap in the state—a pretty big difference in the ability for kids who had access to the internet at home and those who didn't to complete their homework assignments.

In 2016, state leaders launched an initiative aimed at bridging the homework gap. Almost four years later, they've created momentum around the idea of getting kids online. They've built partnerships both within state government and at the local level to ensure that policymakers understand the issues and the challenges, whether it’s connectivity or a lack of access to devices, or both. As a result, they're able to better use public and private resources to address these challenges. Broadband can be an overwhelming issue, particularly for local leaders, who may not have the capacity to just take on something else. So the broadband office in North Carolina hired several regional technical assistance experts to work with communities and private sector partners to position those communities for investment and help them apply for federal funding.

Q. Why is now the time to prioritize closing the connectivity gap?

A. The immediate impact of having a connection is that it offers opportunities that didn't exist before. Many Americans staying inside under stay-at-home orders and living in well-connected communities don’t consider the time of day they’re getting online, or whether they need to kick someone else off the internet to finish their homework. But for communities that have slow connections or no connections, that's a normal part of life. They can't access health care remotely. They don't have the luxury of ordering food and supplies online.

If you're running a business in rural America, it's difficult to engage in the digital economy if you don't have a robust connection. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the connectivity challenges across the country, but building an internet infrastructure takes a while. State grant programs average about two years for their project timelines from funding to completion. If we are going to solve this problem, the time to start thinking about solving this problem is now.

To hear the full podcast episode from Pew’s “After the Fact,” click here.


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