Broadband has always been critical — in 2016, the United Nations declared access to the internet a human right. And this year, as school, office work, and even healthcare have moved online, disparities in broadband access have become even more obvious and concerning.

What is broadband?

The term “broadband” is generally used to refer to a high-speed internet connection that is always available. But, as technology has evolved, so too have definitions of broadband. The Federal Communications Commission now defines it as a connection with a minimum 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speed.

The access gap

Despite its importance, millions of households across the U.S. do not have access to high-speed internet service at home and many more lack the digital skills to use it. This affects some populations more than others, with communities of color, rural areas, seniors, and those with lower income less likely to have broadband at home. 

A recent FCC report found approximately 18 million Americans, mostly in rural areas, don’t have access to any broadband network. Other sources say the FCC data is “wildly inaccurate” — a 2019 report found the number of those without broadband may be as high as 42 million. 

A lack of existing broadband infrastructure is a key problem in rural and remote areas. Setting up rural broadband networks requires significant capital investment to reach a limited number of potential customers. And when underserved areas do get connected, they often don’t have many options: More than 129 million people are limited to a single provider, and that lack of competition impacts affordability.

Making broadband physically available is one thing; making it financially feasible is another. Some people simply can’t afford the high cost of broadband service. Access varies drastically across income groups: U.S. households earning below $20,000 — roughly one-fifth of households — are much less likely to have broadband than those with higher annual incomes.

Impact on distance learning

The rapid shift to remote learning (also called distance learning) has emphasized technology divides across the country — particularly for low-income and rural students. Of the 53 million U.S. students mandated to stay at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, an estimated 15 to 18 million are without broadband access in their homes or neighborhoods.

Rural schools and their students are more likely than their urban and suburban peers to face technological constraints: Only 63% of Americans in rural communities have broadband internet access at home and students in rural areas are less likely to have devices at home than those in non-rural settings. This could be part of the reason for disparity in the delivery of online instruction. One analysis found that only one-fifth of school districts required live teaching over video this spring, with wealthy school districts two times more likely to provide video instruction than low-income districts. Only one-quarter of rural school districts required any instruction while schools were closed. Researchers are already raising concerns about the impact on student achievement and say that Black and Latinx students will experience even greater learning losses than the average student due to disparities in remote learning access and quality. 

Communities are trying to fill the gaps by delivering computers and hotspots to students who need them: School districts have sent buses equipped with long-distance routers to low-income and rural neighborhoods, and libraries and government offices have adjusted or upgraded their routers to allow members of the public to access the internet from outside.

Distance learning will be necessary even when schools reopen. Some students will continue to attend school remotely, due to staggered schedules or health concerns, and large gatherings such as assemblies will likely be held online. Preparing for ongoing remote learning will also be important if and when new surges and outbreaks prompt future school closures.

Impact on remote work

Prior to the pandemic, fewer than one in 10 U.S. employees had the option of working remotely. By April, more than 60% of employees had shifted to remote work. Of course, not everyone has this option: Millions of jobs simply can’t be done from home

Regardless of the job type, the ability to work remotely depends on whether workers have access to reliable broadband and technology at home. In areas without access, this limits opportunities for people to continue working in their current roles or transition to remote work if they have lost their jobs.

Many remote workers have experienced technology challenges, including slow connections and cybersecurity issues. And the cost of getting online has largely fallen on employees: A recent survey found that only one in 10 employers are covering internet bills for newly remote workers.  

Like schools, businesses that can conduct work remotely will likely continue to do so even as restrictions are lifted. Some companies have announced their staff won’t return to an office until 2021 and some have said they will allow their staff to work from home permanently

Impact on telehealth

Telehealth is having a moment. Virtual care is not only convenient if you’re stuck at home or your provider’s office is closed; it also alleviates in-person burden on the healthcare system during a pandemic. Widespread shutdowns prompted a sharp drop in in-person elective and preventative visits — and the decline has been partially offset by a significant increase in telehealth. 

Telehealth is growing, and increased post-pandemic adoption would help prevent hospital-acquired infections and meet the needs of an aging population. Beyond delivery of care, virtual clinical trials also create opportunities to increase engagement and improve the quality of data. 

But many experts caution that expansion of telehealth may actually increase disparities. Older people, people of color, and poor communities — the same populations disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 — often face barriers to using telehealth because they lack digital skills, access to technology, and reliable broadband connections. To fully realize telehealth’s potential, underserved communities will need better access to broadband and other critical technology infrastructure.

Opportunities to improve access

Supporting remote learning, work, and healthcare — during the pandemic and beyond — will require expanded access to affordable broadband. 

For starters, we’ll need to improve data collection and accuracy to better understand the access gap. The FCC currently allows internet providers to self-report the locations they serve, and providers can report to serve the population of an entire census block even if service is provided to just one household in that block — that leaves many gaps in access untracked. The agency is planning to spend $16 billion on increasing broadband availability across the country; it’s more important than ever to know where that investment is needed most. 

We’ll also need to think expansively about how to build technology infrastructure and bring broadband to underserved areas. A number of U.S. cities have installed fiber when a market-based approach didn’t yield accessible options for residents; these localities invest in broadband infrastructure and treat the internet as a utility because they see it as an engine for economic growth. 

Once service is available, we’ll need to make it affordable by increasing competition and offering economic subsidies. Existing programs, including the FCC’s Lifeline support, could be expanded to offer assistance to those who can’t otherwise afford a monthly broadband bill.