April 9, 2020

COVID-19 Exposes the Heartland’s Digital Divide

David Shideler and Jonas Crews

Because of the digital divide, not all parts of U.S. have benefited from the utility of broadband connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic





The digital divide, the gap in internet availability between rural and urban places in our country, is not a new phenomenon, nor is it unexpected. However, the coronavirus pandemic, with social distancing and work from home orders issued to minimize the spread of the virus, has put a spotlight on the varying availability of internet connectivity (both by speed and quality) across the U.S. and its ability to support daily activities. The Heartland, especially its rural parts, are more likely to lack adequate internet infrastructure and connectivity, and therefore, are less able to support virtual solutions to our current situation such as telemedicine, distance learning and remote work. In this brief, we will discuss the trends in broadband availability and adoption across the United States, how these trends impact applications such as telehealth, distance education and remote work opportunities, and we conclude with a discussion of solutions communities have implemented to deliver essential broadband connectivity.

Barriers to Rural Internet Availability

One report on broadband adoption estimates that 85 percent of households in the U.S. have broadband (as defined by the Census as anything faster than a dial-up connection). While this might appear to be good, 100 percent of households have electricity and 99.6 percent have complete plumbing. This study also estimates that a greater share of households in urban places (84 percent) have broadband access than in rural areas (79 percent).1 Using a data set from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) dated June 2019, we see reduced fixed broadband availability between the coasts. In Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Wyoming, more than 25 percent of the population don’t have access to sufficient-quality fixed broadband. (We define “sufficient” based on two components: speed and reliability. We consider 25-megabits-per-second (Mbps) download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds to be sufficient, based on Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines.2,3 Regarding reliability, we only consider wired broadband connections to be sufficiently reliable – satellite and fixed wireless broadband can be highly variable and are influenced by factors such as weather.4) With three of the four states with the lowest broadband access, the Heartland is at a disadvantage to the rest of the country. Among Heartland residents, 87 percent have access to sufficient-quality fixed broadband; 93 percent of residents in the remaining 30 states have broadband.

The gap between rural and urban areas is much starker; 63 percent of rural Americans have fixed broadband internet of sufficient quality, compared to 98 percent of their urban counterparts.5 (Those states with more than 90 percent of rural Census tracts having fixed broadband access are Connecticut, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York. Select Rural or Urban in map).



Rural areas are naturally disadvantaged regarding broadband availability because of their lower population density, which means fewer potential subscribers to pay for the significant equipment costs necessary to provide broadband service. This reality makes rural areas less attractive to internet service providers (ISPs). Several additional barriers also limit broadband adoption in rural areas. Rural households, on average, have lower incomes than urban households. According to the Economic Research Service, personal income per capita was $54,000 in metropolitan counties, but it was only $40,000 in nonmetropolitan counties in 2017; part of the income gap reflects the economic dependence of nonmetropolitan counties on farming and mining, both of which have seen declining commodity prices leading to declining incomes.6

Rural counties have lower median educational attainment and a higher average age than their urban counterparts. The Economic Research Service reports that the median educational attainment category is “high school” in nonmetropolitan counties and “some college, no degree” for metropolitan counties. They also report that the average age in nonmetropolitan counties is 48.9, nearly 3 years older than in metropolitan counties.7 The implications are that rural residents have less exposure to and experience with the internet than urban residents, which could be interpreted as less understanding of the internet’s benefits and, therefore, lower demand for the service.

If broadband were a private good from which the consumer receives all the benefits and it is inexpensive to exclude users from, then the arguments mentioned above would be valid. Lower speeds, less reliable and more expensive broadband in rural counties might be justified. However, as we are discovering in the coronavirus pandemic, broadband is not a private good. As social distancing ramps up, the population is relying heavily on assumed ubiquitous broadband access to shop safely for goods and services, continue our children’s education, provide healthcare for non-urgent needs, distract us from our circumstances, and connect us socially. Unfortunately, this is a false assumption.

Digital Divide Implications for Public Services

The digital divide reinforces the systematic disparities that already exist between urban and rural counties. Rural communities already struggle to maintain adequate public services such as roads, school systems, and healthcare, due to population decline, declining tax bases, and a lack of employment opportunities for residents. Broadband could help resolve some of these ills, though it will require infrastructure investment and subsidization, much like rural electrification in the early 20th century. We examine three applications (telehealth, distance education and work from home) that broadband connectivity can address and improve the economic outlook for rural counties. In this way, we make a case for public investment in broadband infrastructure.

Telehealth

Telehealth is the use of telecommunications technologies to deliver health services and education. Not all medicine can be practiced in this way; it has been noted that COVID-19 cannot be easily diagnosed via telehealth because either a physical sample is required from the patient (e.g., a nasal swab or blood sample), or expensive equipment is needed to confirm symptoms of COVID-19 (e.g., digital CT scan and an electronic stethoscope).8 However, telehealth does provide a way for providers to triage patients, helping to identify those individuals with COVID-19 symptoms that actually need medical assistance, from those for whom advice on quarantining and home care is the best (and safest) treatments.9

Telehealth has also been conducive for reducing the strain on medical facilities by allowing providers to treat non-urgent and non-COVID-19 related illnesses without the patients having to enter a medical facility, increasing the patient’s risk of exposure to COVID-19 as well as contributing to the congestion of the facility.10 Thus by lowering the risk of exposure to COVID-19 and increasing its possible transmission, telehealth plays a large role in preserving the integrity of the U.S.’s medical system, limiting the spread of COVID-19 and reducing the rate of infection and death.

Telehealth has applications well beyond COVID-19, however. Telemedicine is a cost-effective way of delivering specialty care to patients in communities that would not otherwise support the presence of a specialist. It also allows patients to receive care from the comfort and safety of their home, particularly crucial for immune-compromised individuals and/or persons with disabilities for whom transportation over long distances might be difficult. Oklahoma State University Center for Health Science launched the OSU TeleHealth Solution in one rural community this week. In-patients at Fairfax Community Hospital in Fairfax, Oklahoma, now have access to licensed and board-certified physicians who can diagnose, initiate treatment, and coordinate care sooner and without the hardship and disruption to care that comes with transporting patients.11

Distance Education

The Center on Rural Innovation estimates that over 4.6 million school-aged children lack broadband access in their homes in the U.S., more than half of which are in the 20 Heartland states (even though Heartland states only represent 39 percent of U.S. population.) 2.6 million school-aged children are without broadband access at home in the Heartland, 81 percent live in school districts where more than 10 percent of households lack broadband access, and 58 percent of school-aged children lacking broadband access in the Heartland reside in rural school districts (as determined by the National Center for Education Statistics).12 Based upon these statistics, the youth in the Heartland are educationally disadvantaged, given the pervasive lack of broadband access at home. But it’s not just the children without broadband that bear the consequences of this disadvantage. Instead, lacking broadband access limits youths’ access to extracurricular study aids, experience using the internet, awareness of opportunities for further education, the discovery of occupations beyond their personal experience, and exposure to innovations and new ideas. The result is a poorly equipped workforce for the 21st-century economy, which affects the economic development potential of the entire community.

As we saw with telehealth, the coronavirus pandemic has elevated broadband access as an essential form of community infrastructure. School districts across the country sent students home to learn in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and the assumption was that education would continue using online content systems and video conferencing platforms. However, most school districts realized that at least some of their students did not have broadband access and/or devices to connect with the internet at home (commonly referred to as the ‘homework gap’). These districts resorted to generating paper packets for broadband-less students and loaning out school-owned laptops and tablets to device-less students. These efforts are a significant and added burden for teachers and school systems to bear when they already face challenges adapting to social distancing protocols like moving curricula online and ensuring students continue to receive meals as part of the National School Lunch Program.

Work from Home

While work from home policies were necessary to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, a handful of communities were experimenting with these ideas as an economic development strategy.13 A form of repopulation, these communities are actively recruiting knowledge economy workers that can work anywhere that has broadband access and commercial air service. This economic development approach turns the industrial recruitment model upside down by attracting workers that will shop at local retailers and eat in local restaurants, while working for a corporation located somewhere else. This strategy not only reinforces the local customer base, but it also helps to diversify economies that are typically dependent on some form of natural resource extraction (e.g., farming or mining), and diversified economies tend to be more resilient to economics shocks. Heartland Forward recently released two reports that elaborate on how the regional economy will be impacted by declines in oil and gas activity14 and travel and associated aerospace manufacturing15, two industries that disproportionately dominate the Heartland economy. The coronavirus pandemic provides an interesting, albeit imperfect, case study of this economic development trend.

In a study exploring a region’s ability to support work from home, researchers found that places with high digital connectivity and high concentrations of employment capable of remote work were primarily concentrated in urban areas, areas with higher household incomes, and more highly educated workforces; but even in these ‘least vulnerable’ places, residents with low digital connectivity and remote work-capable jobs exist. They also observed that areas with low digital connectivity and low concentrations of remote work employment were more likely to be rural, have lower household income and a less-educated workforce.16

The Center on Rural Innovation generated the Employment Risk Index to assess a given county’s exposure to job losses associated with the coronavirus. The index is based upon three measures: share of employment in industries that are either directly impacted by coronavirus (e.g., tourism) or are characterized by an inability to work from home (e.g., manufacturing), share of wage and salary employment at businesses with less than 50 employees, and share of population over 55 years of age. Not surprisingly, nonmetropolitan counties face a disproportionately high employment risk17, as do Heartland states, who collectively have a higher share of at-risk employment than the U.S. by both industry and at small firms.18

The coronavirus pandemic does not allow us to adequately examine how local economies respond to people from working at home, because so many sectors in which workers could not work at home (estimates of employment not able to work from home range between 60-71 percent of employment) faced furloughs and layoffs due to the economic shutdown induced by social distancing practices. However, what this case does tell us is that it is possible, workers in jobs where remote working is feasible can adjust, and ‘Main Street’ businesses that might not have adapted to social media marketing and e-commerce are ‘quick learners.’19

Policy Priorities to Address the Digital Divide

As we have demonstrated, broadband infrastructure warrants public funding because it delivers public benefits, such as reductions in disease transmission and time savings during emergencies, an educated workforce, and opportunities to diversify and stabilize rural economies. The federal government has been a significant investor in the broadband infrastructure of this country for over a decade, as demonstrated by the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) initiated in 2010, the current and previous two Farm Bills have included funding for rural broadband infrastructure, and funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. But many communities are still lagging behind. Here are suggested policy priorities for local, state and federal governments to increase access to broadband and unlock its potential to bring prosperity to Heartland communities.

1. Begin small and with what you have: Communities with inadequate broadband infrastructure should innovate solutions geared to their circumstances. Some communities have built entire networks through public-private partnerships that leverage local assets, institutional demand, and expertise to deliver affordable broadband. Others like Coachella Valley, CA Unified School District, Finger Lakes Digital Inclusion Coalition and Greenville (SC) County Schools are using school buses to deliver Wi-Fi access to broadband. By installing solar-powered Wi-Fi routers on their buses, students have access to Wi-Fi during their transit to/from school. Then the buses are parked in areas without broadband the remainder of the day to deliver 24/7 access to students.20, 21 Libraries and other public spaces with Wi-Fi, often funded through the FCC’s E-rate program, are relocating their routers to maximize coverage in parking lots, so that individuals can have 24/7 access to free Wi-Fi during the pandemic.22 Oklahoma State University Extension, in partnership with local public libraries, has a hotspot lending program, where local library patrons in participating communities can receive a 4G LTE hotspot with unlimited data access for 7 days, free of charge.23

2. Collect Better Data: Currently, the ‘best’ data available is the FCC’s Form 477 data, which is self-reported from ISPs and documents the Census tracts in which they have at least one subscriber, the technology employed to deliver internet access, and the max speed available to that Census tract. Metrics constructed from these data likely overestimate the number of households with broadband availability, since entire Census tracts (which contain, on average, 4,000 persons)24 are counted as having broadband if only one household in the tract subscribes. Additionally, indicating the max speed available misrepresents the actual speeds subscribers receive, especially if digital subscriber lines (DSL) are used.25 Further, understanding why households choose to adopt or not adopt cannot be effectively answered, since a lack of data on prices prohibits research on affordability.

3. Change Federal funding mechanisms: Harold Feld26 suggests that the federal government’s pandemic response should give every household free basic broadband. He argues that the federal government should pay ISPs a $50 per month per subscriber, plus $25 for each new hook-up, for 25Mbps/3Mbps service for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic. (Customers wanting higher speeds would receive a $50 credit toward their chosen plan.) While middle- and high-income families would receive the subsidized rate, this approach minimizes bureaucratic costs and is quick to deploy. He further argues that universal service is justified not only because broadband access would encourage people to spend money during the pandemic and employ persons without jobs during the pandemic, but it could also accelerate the economic recovery and facilitate critical interaction with family and friends.

An alternative funding mechanism could be modeled after the existing federal research and development tax credit. That is, companies who make qualified investments in broadband infrastructure would realize a tax credit against their federal income or payroll taxes. Such a tax credit would incentivize broadband deployment by private companies by lowering their effective tax rate.

Currently, the federal government’s reliance upon grants and loans creates a competitive structure that favors relatively wealthy communities, those communities that can demonstrate sufficient cash flow to service debt or can afford consultants and grantwriters to complete paperwork. To realize the full potential broadband has to offer society, it should be deployed ubiquitously, and when prioritization occurs, funding could be directed toward the most vulnerable locations rather than the most “competitive.” (Ironically, it is the most vulnerable communities that are likely to develop innovative systems of deployment, as they are accustomed to ‘bootstrapping’ other resources when delivering public services.)27

4. Lend devices: Households may not have access to devices to harness the internet’s potential. One solution could be to establish a lending program for devices, where individuals could borrow laptops, tablets and other equipment for limited periods of time; many school districts are conducting ad hoc experiments with this model during the coronavirus pandemic to ensure that students can participate in e-learning. Another approach is to refurbish old technology from schools and distribute the refurbished machines to device-less households. This approach could even be used to teach youth about computer hardware and repair, as well as keeping some waste materials out of landfills.

5. Embrace new technologies: FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wants to see an additional mid-band spectrum available for unlicensed use, which would increase Wi-Fi spectrum for 5G devices and enable faster transmission speeds. This directly benefits technology built for white space, the unused frequencies in between TV channels.28 Microsoft’s Airband Initiative has been working with communities like Garrett County, Maryland, to build out broadband access using advanced wireless technology.29 Communities need to realize that connectivity is increasing daily – as applications using broadband increase (think about the “Internet of things,” or IoT, such as home security systems and thermostats, commercial trucks, vending machines and manufacturing assembly lines) having a contemporary broadband infrastructure will be needed to benefit from these technologies. Therefore, 5G should not be considered the “gold standard,” but the minimum access available throughout the country.

As we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, and communities pivot from a disaster-triage mentality to a developmental mode, there is no better time to address the digital divide that exists across America. Communities should certainly take advantage of stimulus programs supporting broadband infrastructure investments, such as the at-home telehealth programs and U.S. Department of Agriculture funds included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The reliance that society has placed on broadband to endure the pandemic also justifies advocacy for additional funding in future stimulus packages or expanding FCC programs like Lifeline or E-rate.30 However, local ingenuity should not be underrated, as disruptive times like these often present new opportunities and ideas for solving challenges.

Endnotes

  1. Tomer, Adie, Fishbane, Lara, Siefer, Angela, & Callahan, Bill. (2020, February). “Digital Prosperity: How Broadband Can Deliver Health and Equity to All Communities.” Brookings Institute Metropolitan Policy Program. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/20200227_BrookingsMetro_Digital-Prosperity-Report-final.pdf

  2. https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/household-broadband-guide

  3. https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/broadband-speed-guide

  4. Overall, our sufficiency criteria are nearly identical to those used by the Center on Rural Innovation in their recent map looking at broadband access in school districts across the U.S.: https://ruralinnovation.us/covid-19-school-closures-visualizing-broadband-inequality/

  5. Maps constructed from FCC Form 477 data available at https://opendata.fcc.gov/Wireless/Area-Table-June-2019/tun5-dwjh

  6. United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. (2019, November). “Rural America At a Glance: 2019 Edition.” Economic Information Bulletin 212. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/95341/eib-212.pdf?v=3322

  7. Ibid.

  8. Settles, Craig. (2020, March 13.) “Analysis: The Hope and Hype of Telehealth and COVID-19.” The Daily Yonder. https://www.dailyyonder.com/analysis-the-hope-and-hype-of-telehealth-and-covid-19/2020/03/13/

  9. Armour, Stephanie. (2020, March 22.) “What You Need to Know About Telehealth During the Coronavirus Crisis.” Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/what-you-need-to-know-about-telehealth-during-the-coronavirus-crisis-11584874801

  10. Settles, Craig. (2020, March 13.) “Analysis: The Hope and Hype of Telehealth and COVID-19.” The Daily Yonder. https://www.dailyyonder.com/analysis-the-hope-and-hype-of-telehealth-and-covid-19/2020/03/13/

  11. Hamilton, Melani. (2020, April 7). “OSU TeleHealth Solution, Fairfax Community Hospital Launch Telemedicine Program.” https://health.okstate.edu/news/articles/apr20/osu-telehealth-solution-fairfax.html

  12. https://maps.ruralopportunitymap.us/broadband-access-map

  13. Mercer, Marcia. (2019, January 11). “Rather Than Lure Employers, Some Rural Areas Try to Attract Workers – One at a Time.” Seattle Times, https://www.seattletimes.com/business/rather-than-lure-employers-some-rural-areas-try-to-attract-workers-one-at-a-time/

  14. DeVol, Ross. (2020, March 31). “Coronavirus Hits Already-Vulnerable Heartland Oil and Gas Industries Hard.” Heartland Forward, http://www.heartlandforward.org/coronavirus-hits-already-vulnerable-heartland-oil-and-gas-industries-hard

  15. Shideler, Dave. (2020, March 26). “Heartland Travel Hubs Face Economic Fall-out from COVID-19.” Heartland Forward, http://www.heartlandforward.org/heartland-travel-hubs-face-economic-fall-out-from-covid-19

  16. Gallardo, Roberto & Florida, Richard. (2020, March 26.) “Research Report: Rural Communities Face More Challenges Building Remote Workforce.” The Daily Yonder. https://www.dailyyonder.com/research-report-rural-counties-face-more-challenges-building-remote-workforce/

  17. Calvelli, Aidan. (2020, April 6). “3 Reasons COVID-19 is Creating a Rural Employment Crisis.” Center of Rural Innovation. https://ruralinnovation.us/3-reasons-covid-19-will-create-a-rural-employment-crisis-1/

  18. Authors’ calculations based upon data at https://maps.ruralopportunitymap.us/county-employment-risk

  19. Torry, Harriet. (2020, April 1). “Coronavirus Pandemic Widens Divide Between Online, Traditional Businesses.” The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-pandemic-widens-divide-between-online-traditional-businesses-11585733402

  20. Fishbane, Lara & Tomer, Adie. (2020, March 26). “How New York’s Finger Lakes Region is Building a Coalition to Close its Digital Divide.” Brookings Institute Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative, Digital Prosperity Blog. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2020/03/23/how-new-yorks-finger-lakes-region-is-building-a-coalition-to-close-its-digital-divide/

  21. Turner-Lee, Nichol. (2020, March 17). “What the Coronavirus Reveals About the Digital Divide Between Schools and Communities.” Brookings Institute TechTank. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/techtank/2020/03/17/what-the-coronavirus-reveals-about-the-digital-divide-between-schools-and-communities/

  22. Turner-Lee, Nichol. (2020, March 17). “What the Coronavirus Reveals About the Digital Divide Between Schools and Communities.” Brookings Institute TechTank. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/techtank/2020/03/17/what-the-coronavirus-reveals-about-the-digital-divide-between-schools-and-communities/

  23. For more information, visit http://agecon.okstate.edu/hotspot/.

  24. https://www2.census.gov/geo/pdfs/education/CensusTracts.pdf

  25. https://www.fcc.gov/general/types-broadband-connections

  26. Feld, Harold. (2020, March 25). “Opinion: Want to Keep America Home? Give Everyone Free Basic Broadband.” The Daily Yonder. https://www.dailyyonder.com/opinion-want-to-keep-america-home-give-everyone-free-basic-broadband-2/2020/03/25/

  27. Settles, Craig. (2020, March 13.) “Analysis: The Hope and Hype of Telehealth and COVID-19.” The Daily Yonder. https://www.dailyyonder.com/analysis-the-hope-and-hype-of-telehealth-and-covid-19/2020/03/13/

  28. Editorial Board. (2020, April 2). “Faster Internet is on the Way.” The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/faster-internet-is-on-the-way-11585869911

  29. Turner-Lee, Nicol. (2020). “From Rural Digital Divides to Local Solutions.” Brookings Institute. https://www.brookings.edu/longform/from-rural-digital-divides-to-local-solutions/

  30. Sabin, Sam. (2020, April 2). “Telecom Industry, Broadband Advocates Push for Internet Subsidies in Next Stimulus.” Morning Consult. https://morningconsult.com/2020/04/02/broadband-subsidies-coronavirus-stimulus-package/