The Presumption of the Connected

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Digital Beat

The Presumption of the Connected

Why assuming broadband connectivity is disastrous in a time of crisis

To ensure social distance, we have been asked to recreate work and school in our homes. Distancing ourselves is necessary to “flatten the curve,” which means reducing a spike in new COVID-19 cases and thereby not overloading our health care system.

Dr. Christopher Ali

But while we try not to overload hospitals, the success of home schooling and work from home rests on a misguided presumption of universal internet connectivity. This is not the reality for millions of Americans. The digital divide is acutely felt in rural and tribal communities, by minorities, low-income Americans, and newcomers to the country. Going online to get out of the COVID-19 line of fire will increase the chasm between the connected and the un- and under-connected.

This is particularly true for students in both K-12 and postsecondary schools. Upwards of 70% of homework was assigned online before the move to online-only instruction, but 15% of all school-age children and 18% of school-age children in rural communities do not have a home internet connection. For those who are connected, there are concerns about the capabilities of their networks. Some of my students at the University of Virginia, for instance, expressed concerns that their home broadband networks cannot fulfill the expectations of live video classes.

Three distinct misconceptions about the state of broadband in the U.S. are being exposed again during this crisis.

First misconception – broadband networks reach everyone

In 2019 the FCC announced substantive progress in shrinking the many so-called digital divides that harass this country. It boasted nationwide broadband connectivity of 93.5% and noted that rural broadband (73.6%) and tribal broadband (67.9%) connectivity levels rose significantly from the previous year. But these percentages are comically incorrect. They are based on a skewed data sample that allows internet service providers (ISPs) to designate an entire census block “served” with broadband as long as one edifice is connected or can be connected within ten days! This drastically overestimates the number of connected Americans. Some reports suggest the FCC’s numbers are off by nearly 50%., for instance, found that at least 42 million Americans, rather than the 21.3 million estimated by the FCC, are unconnected. A more shocking report by Microsoft found that half of all Americans, or 162.8 million people, lack at least minimum broadband speeds at home.

The presumption that broadband networks reach everyone could be disastrous for those who are expected to live, work, and study from home in the midst of COVID-19. It means that employers, schools, and healthcare centers may not have a plan in place to connect their unconnected constituents, which may delay work, learning and services. As it stands, it will be tremendously difficult to deliver new, fixed broadband connections in a time of social distancing.

Second misconception – equivalent networks

Past the basic threshold question of whether one is connected or not, we are about to have a very real-world demonstration that all broadband networks are not equal.

  • While fiber optics deliver blazing fast upload and download speeds, fiber-based networks are only available to 25% of the country.
  • Cable networks, a hybrid of fiber and coaxial wires, are relatively ubiquitous across the country, although absent in many sparsely populated rural and remote areas. Cable offers amazing download speeds, which is great for streaming videos and social media, but disappointing upload capability, which is necessary for most business. Cable networks also slow down as more people use the network.
  • Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL), provided by telephone companies, are most common in rural areas. These networks suffer from neglect, cannot match the speeds of cable or fiber, and experience signal degradation after three miles from the central point of access. One study found that the median download/upload speed of DSL was 10mbps/1mbps, far below the FCC’s current broadband benchmark of 25/3.
  • Fixed wireless is another common broadband technology in rural America, and increasingly in urban centers, but it often suffers from slower speeds, high equipment costs, and interruption from weather.
  • Satellite, available to 99% of the America population, has proven to be a disaster. Satellite is plagued by low speeds, high latency, low data caps, massive prices, and inconsistent connections.

Perhaps not surprisingly, competition for broadband access in rural America is almost nonexistent and barely present in urban centers. As a result, many have no option if they are unhappy with their provider. Only 19% of rural Americans have a choice in broadband provider, while only 41% of all census blocks have only one provider offering 100/100 – arguably the bare minimum a household needs today.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, fiber-based broadband will likely handle the shifting bandwidth demands. Cable networks, on the other hand, will perform well for those seeking to download files or stream Netflix, but will lag if multiple household members need to videoconference at the same time. The performance of fixed wireless is uncertain, while DSL and satellite networks will almost certainly be overloaded. Work, study, and communication will thus be particularly difficult for rural Americans, 75.7% of whom depend on a DSL network.

Third misconception – mobile can pick up the slack

Eight out of 10 Americans own smartphones, so they can rely on those familiar devices, no? No, they cannot. Despite advertisements depicting an America fully painted in the blue of AT&T and the pink of T-Mobile, 4G access – the mobile speeds necessary to stream video –is uneven across the country. In 2019, the FCC reported that mobile carriers had exaggerated their network reach by upwards of 40%. Huge swaths of this country remain under-connected by mobile systems. And mobile customers are subject to throttling if they use too much data. Those data caps become more severe if trying to turn a phone into a “hotspot” to connect other devices. This is troubling for the 20% of Americans who access the internet solely with their mobile device. And 5G remains the great industry myth; it is still being rolled out only in selective, largely urban and wealthy areas. The frequencies used (millimeter wave or high-band), moreover, travel such short distances that they are useless for rural communities. 5G will not save us here.

American home-broadband connections simply are not ready for a massive transition to online work, education, commerce, healthcare, and life. To presume otherwise, and without a plan in place to connect everyone, risks further excluding those already disenfranchised. It will cut these communities off from critical information, from work opportunities, and learning. In short, it means the digital divides will grow.

There are actions we can take today to ensure that every American has access to broadband, and there are actions that need to be taken the day the pandemic clears.

On March 13, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai initiated Keep Americans Connected Pledge asking ISPs to commit to 1) not terminating services to those who can’t pay their bills, 2) waive late fees, and 3) open their Wi-Fi hotspots. Companies that signed the pledge include AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter (Spectrum), and Comcast (Xfinity). Before the FCC pledge, Comcast announced it would offer their internet essentials program for free for new customers, while Charter/Spectrum has offered free broadband to students.  This is a great start, although, as Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel reminds us, we need to do more.

  • Anchor institutions, municipal governments, and educational institutions need to account for their unconnected constituents and offer hotspots at no cost.
  • Providers need to continue to offer free or heavily discounted service to those connected and explore all options for connecting the unconnected.
  • Mobile cell towers need to be in place to handle the larger demand on cellular networks.
  • Schools and libraries should also be empowered to loan out hotspots for community members.
  • The FCC should also start releasing funds intended for the $20.4 billion rural digital opportunity fund (RDOF), immediately, to build out or improve rural broadband networks.

Even with these actions, however, it is doubtful that those most at risk from disconnection will be served.

Several steps need to be taken once we are clear of this pandemic.

  • The FCC needs to raise its definition of broadband from 25/3 to 100/100, and mandate that subsidies will only be given to those providers who can reach this new threshold. This will (hopefully) compel companies to upgrade their outdated networks.
  • The FCC needs to revise its mapping and data collection methodology, as required by the Broadband Data Act so we know who is un- and under-connected.
  • The FCC needs to democratize its Universal Service Fund system to allow for greater participation among ISPs.
  • Policymakers need to consider the country’s 5G agenda and begin prioritizing spectrum all Americans, and not just urban Americans can take benefit from.
  • Anchor institutions must develop a plan to ensure their constituents have a reliable, high-performance broadband connection in times of emergency.
  • Last, but certainly not least, the country requires a renewed and comprehensive broadband plan, especially for rural America where the digital divide is particularly felt. This plan must set forward-looking and aggressive goals and recognize what many of us have believed for years, and which COVID-19 has made abundantly clear: broadband is not a luxury nor a frivolity, it is necessity, a utility, and a human right.

Christopher Ali is an Associate Professor at the University of Virginia and Faculty Fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. He is the author of the forthcoming book: Farm Fresh Spectrum: Rural Broadband Policy and the Future of Connectivity (MIT Press)

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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