What 2020 Taught Us About Broadband

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, November 20, 2020

Weekly Digest

What 2020 Taught Us About Broadband

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday. This week, Jonathan Sallet shares an excerpt from Broadband For America Now.

Round-Up for the Week of November 16-20, 2020

Jon Sallet

We’re not going back to broadband circa 2019. Every aspect of life is going to have a significant virtual component from here on.

That’s the lesson we’ve learned in 2020 about the use of broadband networks by people in their homes. Residential broadband access has become crucial to work and learn, to schedule and attend remote visits with a doctor, and to remain connected with family and friends—especially with multiple members of the household online at the same time. And Americans recognize this need: A Pew research study found that 87% of Americans viewed the internet as essential or important during the pandemic.

As Mike Lynch, the cable and broadband officer for the City of Boston, said earlier this year, “Everybody discovered over the last six months that connectivity is a must-have, and people who may not have been that interested or didn’t see the immediate need are now pressed into understanding that we have a need for connectivity.”

We are living in a world where the pandemic required us to move our lives on the internet. Seemingly overnight, we had to learn how to do activities online that were previously performed overwhelmingly in person. With these new skills and a new environment in which participation in society is ever more reliant on broadband, change will certainly come to all manner of pursuits.

This new dynamic translates into greater need, but also greater opportunity. Having been forced to use broadband more than in the past, people have learned how to videoconference and, in general, be better at what they do online. That experience, and the continuing challenges of a post-crisis world, will bend the curve of broadband usage upward. Greater demand for services over broadband networks offers the prospect of better supply of broadband-enabled services, which will, in turn, attract greater demand. That’s what positive feedback loops create: a dynamic system of mutually reinforcing improvement.

How We Work in 2020

Nick Bloom, an economist at Stanford, explains the changes in work from home this way: “Before COVID, five percent of working days were spent at home. During the pandemic, this increased eightfold to 40 percent a day. And post-pandemic, the number will likely drop to 20 percent.” Thus we can expect greater usage of remote work for those who can (about 40 percent of employees, by one calculation). Bloom offers three key reasons for this change. First, those people who can telecommute will be reluctant to be in crowded areas, elevators, and public transportation. Second, employers and employees have invested time and money into working from home—creating workspaces and learning how to navigate various videoconferencing technologies. Third, the notion that people can’t work effectively from home has largely dissipated.

Unfortunately, not all people will enjoy the same opportunities to work from home, and not all physical communities will benefit from the work-from-home boom. Already, remote work is concentrated among high-income earners in urban or suburban areas. And racial disparities in other aspects of society also arise with telework: Non-Hispanic white and Asian workers are more likely to telework than Black and Hispanic workers.

Digital skills have become critical for the entire workforce, and jobs that have traditionally not relied on technology may add new technological demands. A 2017 Brookings Institution report found that “digital skills have now become a prerequisite for basic economic inclusion, including for people without a bachelor’s degree,” as jobs have rapidly been transformed by the introduction of digital tools and information technology. Yosef Getachew, director of the Media & Democracy Program at Common Cause, emphasizes the new use of information technology in jobs done by drivers, factory workers, mechanics, and service providers.

And many new jobs require technology skills: About a third of the jobs in the United States are “middle-skill” jobs, which require some postsecondary education, such as an associate’s degree or a credential from a community college. As John Horrigan has emphasized, eight in ten middle-skill jobs now require digital skills, and the need for digital skills is only growing.

How We Learn in 2020

Students have long been suffering the consequences of the digital divide both in the classroom and at home. As of last year, only about a third of K-12 schools met the goal the Federal Communications Commission established for 2018 of having 1 Mbps per student and staff (1 Gbps per 1,000 students and staff). About 30 percent of public school students lack adequate broadband or devices to learn from home, and this “homework gap” is more pronounced for Black, Hispanic, and lower-income householdsThe Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies has emphasized that “30.6% of Black households with one or more children age 17 or younger lack high-speed home internet (over 3.25 million Black children live in these households).”

These differences have far-reaching effects. In March 2020, researchers from the Quello Center at Michigan State University explained that “[d]isparities related to home Internet access go well beyond student experiences with their homework.” Students with more digital skills score better on standardized tests like the SAT and are more likely to enter a technology profession. Importantly, those researchers have explained, “[c]ontrary to some expectations that students can get by through the use of a cell phone as a substitute for high-speed home internet access, those who rely on a cell phone only for internet access outside of school experience gaps in performance as large as, or larger than, those with no home internet,” as they rely on smaller screens, slower devices, and less robust subscription plans. And the current FCC definition of broadband (25/3 Mbps) constitutes inadequate service for households that are sending simultaneous video streams to support distance learning, teleworking, and other needs such as remote health care.

When the pandemic struck in March 2020, school closures impacted 55 million school children and 14 million college students in the United States. Teachers and professors have moved lessons and assignments online in an attempt to continue instruction, but their effectiveness is limited by their students’ level of access to the internet and related technologies. About 90 percent of the 51,000 students in the predominantly Black Detroit Public Schools Community District couldn’t participate in online learning initially because they did not have access to the internet or technology at home.

With resurgence of the pandemic this fall, even schools that were open or partly open are closing and, in such places, learning is happening entirely online. School-based connectivity programs, such as the distribution of hotspots to students who need them, are a short-term and insufficient solution.

Higher education, too, will be changed by the mass migration to virtual learning even after the COVID-19 crisis passes. While some programs in higher education require students’ physical presence on campus or in the classroom, others can be conducted entirely virtually. Many colleges and universities are starting the year online, and some, such as Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, have gone online for the entire 2020-21 school yearDr. Douglas Harris of Tulane University said that high-quality online degree programs may allow a greater range of students to access the opportunity—for instance, a nontraditional student without the ability to access high-resourced, high-quality schools may be able to enroll in a program usually restricted to students who live nearby.

The demand for online education, both at the K-12 and higher education levels, will be greater after the current crisis than before. Already, enrollment at Arizona State University, for example, is up 7.6 percent over last year, and more than 53,000 students are entirely online—ASU’s largest online enrollment to date. When schools across the country closed, students, families, and school professionals had to adapt rapidly to distance learning. Schools employed technologies like Google Classroom and Zoom that became essential for many teachers and professors to manage virtual learning. The positive feedback loop we have talked about may come into play here as well. As students begin in the future to return to classrooms, teachers and professors will continue to use the technologies they adopted to enhance distance learning, recognizing that digital technologies can be powerful complements to in-person learning.

How We Access Health Care in 2020

Like remote work, telehealth was slow to grow before the pandemic, largely stifled by complex state and federal regulations. Telehealth has long been “on the brink of greater use and acceptance,” but changes in regulations at the outset of the pandemic have allowed the practice to become much more common as patients attempt to avoid busy, potentially dangerous medical facilities and as Congress has appropriated emergency stimulus funds to support telehealth.

Indeed, by one calculation, doctors and other medical professionals have been “seeing 50 to 175 times the number of patients via telehealth than they did before the pandemic.” More than half of physicians now say they are using telehealth to treat patients, compared with only 18 percent in 2018. Health care systems have done “a decade’s worth of work” to launch telehealth programs, and patients are enjoying a new “consumerization” of health care as virtual services increase their options for care.

But lack of affordable broadband connections, technology, and digital skills continues to impede broader use. The University of Alabama at Birmingham has conducted 200,000 telehealth visits since the pandemic began, but nearly 40 percent took place over audio instead of over video. Dr. Eric Wallace, the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s medical director of telehealth, explains that the issue is not just broadband access in rural areas; he also points to affordability issues, a lack of technology, and a lack of digital literacy among patients.

Greater experience with telemedicine and revamped payment processes may sustain the new demand for remote care and lead to new roles for health care locations once the crisis passes. When medical appointments are available from home and patients can easily send data about their health status via their home internet connection, the role of health care locations—clinics, pharmacies, hospitals—may shift. Some experts are even rethinking the role of hospitals as “hubs” for care. Schools and public housing, for instance, may be better places to integrate clinical care with social services, housing, and other non-clinical services. Dr. Michael Boland, IT director of the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins, says that the pandemic has necessitated creating an “ecosystem of distributed care” so that patients are not densely packed into one location. For instance, patients may receive part of their care at a testing facility and part of their care through video at home. Broadband connections are therefore crucial not only for the home and the hospital, then, but for any location where patients receive care.

The trend toward telehealth may incentivize the use of at-home technology to monitor patient health. For instance, glaucoma patients can already check their eye pressure at home and send the data back to a doctor. Moving forward, patients may regularly send their vital signs to their physician and only visit a doctor’s office or hospital for an in-depth exam or medical procedure. Telehealth allows patients in a small town or rural community to receive treatment from a specialist in their condition, an opportunity that previously would have been impossible or required extensive travel. Of course, sending data from an at-home diagnostic technology or participating in a videoconference with a specialist requires a broadband connection at home and, in particular, high upload speeds, as well as the digital skills necessary to use telehealth applications and devices, an issue of digital equity that we address here.

As the use of broadband in health care grows, health care policy becomes an important tool for increasing broadband adoption following on the crises-driven changes to expand Medicare reimbursement for telehealth services. Thus, for example, FamiliesUSA proposed an agenda in July 2020 that includes expanding reimbursement for telehealth services permanently and establishing payment parity between equivalent services delivered in person and by video.

In this crisis, health care is a matter of social justice, and broadband connectivity is, therefore, a tool for social justice.

How Government Services are Delivered in 2020

Before the COVID-19 crisis, government services were already moving online. As Denise Linn Riedl, chief innovation officer of South Bend, Indiana, explained, some residents were asking for digital services before the pandemic, but other residents and city government officials did not see the value. Since the pandemic forced so many Americans to stay home, “some hearts and minds changed,” and more government employees and community residents have since recognized the benefit of digital service. Thus, Linn Riedl says, the pandemic has created “good market pressure” for the city’s departments to modernize because residents want to do as much as they can remotely.

The recent experience of unemployment claims tells the tale. The Economic Policy Institute found that for every 10 people who successfully filed for unemployment benefits, three to four additional people tried to apply but couldn’t get through the system to file a claim, and two more people did not even try applying because it was too difficult. The need for better systems to satisfy people’s needs became obvious.

Samantha Schartman, executive director of the Marconi Society, has offered government services as a specific example of the positive feedback loop described here—a world in which broadband access to government services improves the services themselves as they are modernized to better meet the needs of the governments’ constituencies.

Schartman’s vision is already playing out across the country. For example, the increased stress on state unemployment insurance systems pushed several states, such as Washington and Oklahoma, to upgrade their software and operations to better meet the flood of demand. And governments can be proactive in meeting constituent needs. Lexington, Kentucky, CIO Aldona Valicenti says her community will periodically run short surveys of visitors on the city’s websites, asking constituents what kind of services and information they want to be able to use.

But as government services move online, those without broadband, technology, or digital skills will struggle. Consider the difficulties low-income households in Baltimore have faced in applying for federal heating assistance. With in-person intake sites closed, households must apply online or with paper applications. But many households do not have ready access to the internet or the digital skills to upload documentation and navigate the online energy assistance process, which has led consumer advocates to press for wide distribution of paper applications and secure drop boxes. Olivia Wein of the National Consumer Law Center points to this example as further evidence of the need for digital equity.

What 2020 Teaches Us About Broadband Policy in 2021 and Beyond

The world changed in 2020. And even after the present health crisis passes, the world is not going back to the way it was. As we consider broadband's role in combating the pandemic, rebuilding our economy, addressing racial inequity, and battling climate change, we cannot let circa-2019 views about how broadband connections were used and who needed to be connected limit our vision going forward. 

Work, learning, health care, government services, and other facets of everyday life will be more dependent on broadband in the future than in the immediate past. That can be to the good, setting in motion dynamic change that makes online activities even better—for people who have broadband. But the more important broadband connections become, the more disadvantaged are those who cannot use broadband, either because no service is available, they cannot afford connections to their home, or they do not yet have the needed digital skills. The increased importance of broadband—when so many lack access to it—threatens to widen digital divides, resulting in digital chasms that will be larger, longer-lasting, and harder to close.

Everyone in America needs High-Performance Broadband now. 

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Dec 1 -- Technological Advisory Council Meeting (FCC)

Dec 9 -- Champions of Digital Equality: 35th Anniversary Kickoff (Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council)

Dec 10 -- December 2020 Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting (FCC)

Dec 14 -- The Courts, The Hill and The FCC - A Year in Review and Setting the Stage for 2021 (NATOA)

Dec 17 -- Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee Meeting (FCC)

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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Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities

By Jonathan Sallet.