Rural America's Battle for Faster Internet
Nearly 40 million households lack a quality connection, cutting them off from work, schools and more
En español | Standing in the rain on the lawn of her ranch-style home, Lisa Huntsman strained to hear her pulmonologist during a recent telemedicine call. “I was so nervous, it was hard to focus on what my doctor was saying,” says Hunstman, 49, who lives in Fleming, a rural community in southeastern Ohio.
In better circumstances she would have engaged with her doctor on a computer via a videoconference in which they could see each other and calmly discuss her condition and treatments. But wired broadband internet lines haven't come to her neighborhood, so she and her family must make do with spotty cellular service for phone calls and low-grade internet service via a hot spot device with a hefty price tag of $360 per month. “It's our most expensive bill,” Huntsman says. “Our house payment was never even that high."
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Countless older Americans who live outside cities and suburbs have shared Huntsman's frustration, before and during the pandemic. Because it is expensive and sometimes physically unwieldy to run fiber-optic lines and coaxial cables to rural homes, many residents along the countless back roads of America lack the technology to access the full range of digital services available to the rest of us—from video chats with grandchildren to connecting to the servers at work to streaming the latest Netflix series.
How many Americans are on the wrong side of this “digital divide"? Estimates range from the Federal Communication Commission's 21 million to more than 40 million, according to the service-comparison site BroadbandNow. This lack of quality internet makes it hard for people in sparsely populated areas to keep up with the rest of the nation, says Tom Ferree, the chairman and CEO of Connected Nation, a nonprofit advocate that develops public-private programs to expand access to technology. “Saying ‘Just work from home’ in a crisis ignores the reality for many Americans,” he observes.
A surgical nurse whose work was reduced when COVID-19 shut down elective procedures, Huntsman was offered alternative telecommuting tasks by her employer. “But I had to turn that down because our internet is so poor,” she says. Her husband and teen daughter have had to take turns using the internet to juggle work and school demands; the hot spot can't reliably serve multiple users. “There were many days our daughter came to us in tears,” Huntsman recalls. “With the libraries closed, we've been known to sit outside the McDonald's just to get homework done” using the restaurant's free Wi-Fi. Even fun online activities, like streaming movies at home, are pretty much out of the question.
One particularly big downside for older Americans without good internet access is the difficulty of conducting home health consultations with doctors and therapists. Spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, health care systems nationwide have begun shifting routine visits from the clinic to the computer.
"Everyone is having connectivity issues,” says Rebecca Street, 32, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Louisville, Kentucky, who often serves rural patients via teleconference- — or tries to. “Some of my clients simply can't afford technology and the internet. We've tried to keep in touch by phone, but it's difficult to deliver quality counseling that way.”
Defining the divide
The federal government defines “broadband” internet service as a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and an upload speed of 3 Mbps; the standard is known as “25/3.” Only 1.4 percent of urban households lack access to internet at that speed, but in rural America, 26.9 percent of homes can't connect at these high speeds.
And that 25/3 standard is an increasingly low bar, given the demands of modern households, which often have multiple, competing internet connections — one person streams a movie while another streams music while another conducts a video chat. “If you have a family of four working and learning at home, a total of 25 Mbps is just not adequate,” says Christopher Ali, a University of Virginia professor who studies the digital divide. “That's when your video stops or your audio skips or your connection freezes. You can only jam so much information down a single wire unless that wire is fiber."
State-of-the-art fiber-optic networks overcome this because they deliver data as a beam along a hairlike strand of glass or plastic. “Upload and download literally happens at the speed of light,” says Ali. But fewer than a third of all U.S. households have access to fiber-optic service. It's expensive to install, and the routes often follow major roads or highways, so even when households in rural regions can get it, those who live more than a mile or so off the beaten track may miss out.
Next fastest is coaxial cable — the same type of wiring used for cable TV. But a study by Purdue University shows that only 55 percent of rural households have access to a cable internet service.
Internet Availability in Rural Households
|Fiber-Optic Network||Cable||Fixed Wireless||DSL|
Meanwhile, the FCC's official map of areas that aren't served by broadband understates the problem, analysts say, because it depicts the served and unserved areas in geographical chunks called census blocks. In urban sections a city block likely would equal a census block. But in remote parts of the United States, census blocks may encompass hundreds of square miles. “Providers can claim a block is covered if as little as one address in that entire area has broadband,” explains Tyler Cooper, the editor in chief of BroadbandNow. "This creates big overreporting problems."
A bill passed in March and signed into law by President Donald Trump, the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act, will require the FCC to collect more accurate data from providers. “Currently, it's all self-reported, with no checks on it,” Ferree says.
Costs and barriers
Internet providers are for-profit businesses, so, ultimately, much of the digital divide is caused by economics. “It can cost from $3,000 to $8,000 per house to wire for fiber optic,” Cooper says. “There is very little return on investment for providers in an area like that."
Which gets to consumer affordability. Generally, $60 a month for high-speed internet service is considered a reasonable rate for a household to pay. But according to BroadbandNow, only 52 percent of Americans have access to wired broadband at $60 a month or less. And availability at that price plummets in states with large rural expanses. In Colorado, for example, just 3 percent of residents can get broadband for less than $60 a month; in Nebraska, the figure is 11 percent; in Maine, 5 percent. Unaffordable monthly access rates place many poorer households in urban settings on the wrong side of the digital divide.
States with roadblocks to high-speed internet access
As of May 2020, 22 states banned or restricted public entities’ ability to offer high-speed internet access. Often this leaves residents of small towns and rural areas without speeds sufficient to work or go to school from home yet keeps their monthly access fees above $60.
• North Carolina
• South Carolina
There are other factors behind the digital divide, too, such as legislation that blocks competition. BroadbandNow research found that 22 states have enacted barriers or bans to setting up municipally owned nonprofit networks that are similar to public utilities.
Accessing the internet via a home satellite dish would seem a likely solution, eliminating the need to bury pensive fiber networks. But experts say that current satellite technology — while sometimes marketed to consumers as broadband — is actually too slow, unreliable and expensive to be counted as a true broadband service. Plus, says Brian Whitacre, a professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University, “it certainly is more costly to have a big piece of equipment attached to your house, and for the provider to maintain a satellite in orbit.” And just as rain and wind can break up a satellite TV signal, they also interfere with satellite internet transmission. “Having the signal break up when you are in a meeting or a telehealth appointment is problematic,” notes Roberto Gallardo, assistant director of Purdue University's regional development center.
Although some dish companies advertise 25/3 broadband speeds, in practice they often clock in at 10/1 or 5/1. In a 2019 Purdue household survey, only a quarter of those surveyed were happy with satellite service, but more than half of cable and fixed wireless users were satisfied with their internet access.
Anne Boothe describes her hometown of Malta, Montana, as “100 miles from the nearest Walmart and 200 miles from the nearest airport.” But the telecommuter and grandmother is satisfied with her broadband access, which is provided over fiber-optic lines through a member-owned co-op, Triangle Communications. It began in the 1950s as a telephone company. “Our co-op took out federal loans to expand the network,” says Boothe, 62, who enjoys chatting with her grandchildren in Oregon via Zoom. “We are very sparsely populated, less than one person per square mile. But with our broadband, farm spouses can work remotely, retirees can stay connected, and we've avoided the brain drain of younger people leaving for good."
Such cooperatives don't have the pressure to produce quick returns on investment, explains Geoff Feiss, the general manager of the Montana Telecommunications Association. “They can invest in areas where publicly traded companies can't justify the expense."
Other work-arounds include municipally operated networks, through which cities and towns issue bonds to cover network expansion costs. About 125 communities nationwide (most with populations under 25,000) operate such broadband utilities, says Christopher Mitchell, director of broadband for the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Hundreds of other municipalities operate limited networks or are involved in public-private partnerships. But according to BroadbandNow research, 22 states have laws that prohibit public-sector competition with for-profit telecommunications companies.
The federal government allocates roughly $6 billion a year for rural internet access, but even those upgrades may not bring some areas up to industry broadband standards. “That is keeping rural America behind,” says Ali, the Virginia professor. AARP is among the organizations pushing for more funding, emphasizing the need for reliable telehealth service to older Americans. AARP has encouraged federal and state lawmakers to allocate more for broadband infrastructure, including advocating for additional appropriations in coronavirus relief bills and emphasizing the issue's importance to the FCC. Social distancing has only amplified the issue. “This national emergency,” Feiss says, “has exposed both the benefits of broadband and the gaps and challenges that remain.”