When in-person gathering took a break in March 2020, millions of people around the United States were left without access to reliable internet. Especially in rural areas, whole families locked down in homes had no way to study, work, or access online medical care.
As wealthy as the United States is, the nation has a digital gap. No internet, spotty internet, slow internet: Not every sector gets the easy connectivity and lightning speeds that residents of densely populated locales take for granted.
The digital inequality is problematic. But when exposed, it prompted the U.S. government to act. Congress has allocated tens of billions of dollars to help close the gap.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last fall. It identifies areas that receive broadband speeds of less than 25 megabits per second (mbps) downloads and three mbps uploads as “underserved.” To qualify for federal grants through the infrastructure bill, most finished projects must offer speeds of at least 100 mbps for downloads. Upload speeds differ, but most federal grants require a minimum of 20 mbps.
What does that mean? A 10-minute, standard definition video is about one gigabyte of data. It takes 80 seconds to download that video at 100 mbps speed. It takes four times as long—more than five minutes—at 25 mbps. Yawn. That’s some wait for one short flick!
High-speed internet is delivered via bundled fiber optic cables. Broadband companies are working to lay new cables that reach rural areas. The funds are available to do the work. But there are still obstacles. Supply chain issues, labor shortages, and geographic constraints slow establishment of fiber lines.
Michael Bell of Corning Optical Communications based in Charlotte, North Carolina, says companies are waiting on the protective jacket that surrounds the hair-thin strands of glass which carry information on beams of light. Without that component, the show simply cannot go on.
Despite the obstacles, select rural areas are already seeing changes. Some homes and businesses are getting connected for the first time. Others are upgrading to faster service!
In Concord, Vermont, resident John Gilchrist says he and his daughter no longer have to go to the local diner to use the internet. His daughter and her friends have been using their own broadband access to play online video games. In a few months, she’ll be doing college studies online.
“All I do is check email,” Gilchrist says. “I don’t watch TV, but my daughter loves it.”
Why? As technology advances, some services previously considered optional become essential. Meeting the needs of the underserved is both a business and a service that parallels loving the less fortunate.