The pandemic has taught us that broadband services are essential and now many digitized opportunities in remote work, distance learning and telemedicine have become integral parts of modern society. But not everyone benefits. People living in poverty or rural areas are less likely to have broadband access, which is also one of the three common elements that contribute to low-income ZIP codes – along with paying over 30% of income for rent and not having a higher one graduation. By now, broadband access would enable solutions in all three.
As we disrupt AI, automation, and the metaverse, faster speeds will define the future of work, play, and human development. The government is committing billions of dollars to broadband expansion and digital equity, and states are already developing action plans to meet their 2028 targets. Now we must recognize the true definition of equitable access to broadband if we hope to close the digital divide forever and create an equitable future.
Remote work supports more families and boosts the economy
Remote work is here to stay, but as the need for home technology has increased, so have the demands for internet at home. Communities with access to high-speed 1 gigabits per second (Gbps) broadband have lower unemployment rates than those without. As we move into a digital world, being a high-performing remote worker will become increasingly important. It takes a lot of speed to use videos effectively, upload, download and collaborate with online teams. Without access to the right networks, companies are likely to turn to people in underserved areas for good remote jobs.
Even now, people without broadband access are likely to live in areas with few job opportunities. Add a bus fare, Uber, or monthly car payment on a long drive and your potential earnings are drastically reduced. Gasoline prices are ridiculously high, but childcare costs are higher, and spending too much on finding a job can make it impossible to support a family. Meanwhile, with high-speed broadband, people can get their work done from home, save time and money, and choose from opportunities around the world. With speeds that are equally competitive everywhere, we’re not just leveling the playing field for more people to participate—we’re encouraging more innovation.
Education moves to the next frontier
Whether it’s homeschooling, distance learning or an online college degree, broadband connects people to a continuum of better education. More children could take specialty courses that may not exist in their local community, and schools equipped with high speeds could introduce more students to a wider range of careers that they might not otherwise have access to. From virtual field trips to guest speakers, with all the potential for VR and AR to enhance the classroom, the role of broadband in education will continue to grow.
However, those who don’t have the speed to take advantage of these opportunities will struggle to keep up. As we have seen during COVID-19, the problems of distance learning during the pandemic hit children and families in impoverished areas worst, and many rural and low-income students fell far behind. Unless we equip everyone with the same speeds needed to support technologies that are making leaps in education, we will just end up with a more modern version of the same digital divide.
Telemedicine enables more people to prioritize health
Broadband supports remote clinical services from the home through telemedicine and the broader domain of telemedicine, which extends to non-clinical services such as provider training, administrative meetings and medical education. Access to good doctors and hospitals in rural areas is a major concern, but broadband allows rural professionals to consult with specialists from other hospitals and keep up with technology and skills training. Some suggest that patients could receive over 20% of all outpatient and home health care costs virtually, allowing them to speak to healthcare professionals from anywhere without having to travel and take time off work to get there .
However, to unify access to telemedicine, everyone needs speeds that support effective and efficient transfer of data. A patient requesting a doctor to assess an abrasion needs to stream high-definition video without glitches or buffering. For a doctor monitoring a patient’s vital signs, both sides need very low latency to track this data in real-time. It is estimated that larger hospitals need 100Mbps to maintain simultaneous HD video streaming, remote monitoring and fast file transfers — speeds nearly half of the country’s rural regions lack. As technologies like IoT and AI will power the next generation of healthcare, we should ensure that all areas are equally equipped with the broadband quality needed to support them.
Broadband makes life possible
We are beyond the question of whether or not people can live without broadband. Now it comes down to how much it can be used to create a better life. Between work, health, education and entertainment, broadband has become indispensable. Even in a recession, 2022 survey data shows consumers rank internet service fifth in billing importance, behind home payments, electricity, gas, credit cards and health insurance. This priority jumps to third place (behind only housing and utilities) in households with annual household incomes between $10,000 and $24,999 – those most likely to be in economic hardship.
The government has the right intentions in funding broadband access in the areas that need it, but without speed parity we risk keeping the digital divide open. Installing networks with lower speed, lower reliability, and higher latency makes people fail in these areas. In 2021, the Fiber Broadband Association determined that a household of four required 131/73 Mbps bandwidth. They expect a demand of 2,141/2,044 Mbit/s by 2030. Network builds with “minimum acceptable speeds” (as little as 25/3 Mbps) will quickly require expensive upgrades to keep up as technology demands greater demands, and those without will simply be left behind.
We need more than a broadband minimum to make these infrastructure investments sustainable and balance society. First, the government needs to take a proactive approach, as the UK has done, to ensure eligible households are aware of the affordability benefits. As states prepare to seek federal funding, they must put their money where their future lies, investing to give their citizens the speed needed to compete in today’s digital economy. To lead us into a new era of innovation where all have access to a level playing field, we need true digital equality and high-speed broadband for all.