One of the joys — and banes — of living in the country is lack of internet access.
Disconnecting from the tyranny of Twitter and other social media can be a relief. But as many have learned during the pandemic, being unable to get high-speed internet access can make working, learning and video calling difficult, if not impossible, in rural areas.
About 14.5 million Americans live in locales without broadband internet access. But the urban-rural divide is vast: At the end of 2019, 17 percent of rural residents and 21 percent who live on tribal lands lacked the even the slowest definition of high-speed internet access compared with about 1 percent in urban areas, according to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report released in January 2021.
Rural residents are also much more likely than suburban or urban residents to say that access to high-speed internet is a problem — more than half, 58 percent, vs. about a third of urban and suburban residents. That includes 23 percent who say it’s a major problem, more than double than those elsewhere, according to a June 2021 AARP study.
All that could change soon, thanks to new technology.
Federal and local governments have promised to bring broadband internet access to rural and underserved communities for decades with little progress. That's primarily because of the expense and limitations of the technology. Stringing miles of cables or optical fiber to a single rural customer doesn't make economic sense.
The same holds true for cellular service towers, and 5G wireless service that's expanding nationwide won't improve the situation. Its higher-frequency radio waves require an even greater concentration of towers because 5G wireless can't travel as far as 4G LTE transmissions.
Telephone wires, satellites are slower
So folks in the country have been stuck with old digital subscriber lines (DSL), which is internet service over wired telephone lines, or satellite services such as Germantown, Maryland-based HughesNet. Both are too slow to handle many of the ways information is disseminated today.
The maximum speed of DSL service in urban areas is 100 megabits per second (Mbps), according to the service-comparison site BroadbandNow. And that speed is more of a rare burst than a constant. The best a fixed DSL line could muster in our tests in a rural area was 1.2 Mbps on downloads.
Almost a quarter of rural residents are likely to use their local phone line to deliver high-speed internet via DSL, twice as likely as urban or suburban residents, according to the AARP study.
Existing satellite internet services promise up to 25 Mbps but usually fall short of that, especially when it's rainy, snowy or windy. Netflix streaming video service recommends speeds of at least 3 Mbps to watch a single standard-quality video, commonly referred to as 480p (a screen height of 480 pixels with a progressive scan that draws the picture line by line in sequence), 5 Mbps for high definition and 25 Mbps for ultra-high definition or 4K.
In 2015, the FCC raised the official requirements for broadband to 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. That's about 40 times slower than the gigabit download internet speeds that providers such as AT&T Fiber, CenturyLink, Google Fiber, Verizon Fios and Xfinity offer in urban areas.