The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t had a lot of bright spots, but one of them has certainly been a ray of sunshine, or in this case, bandwidth, for rural America — broadband internet.
President Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure package includes $65 billion for bringing broadband internet to rural areas. From the West Virginia Appalachian Mountains to remote Alaskan villages, increasing broadband internet access to rural Americans gives people young and old alike a chance to digitally connect with the rest of the world.
Shawna Williams, who lives in Akiak, Alaska — a small village that’s only reachable by boat or plane — pays around $300 a month for her internet service. It’s not only outrageously expensive, but the connection is bad, which makes taking online classes to earn her college degree nearly impossible. “The internet is so unreliable, and it’s usually too slow, especially in the evenings when I get off of work, to load even a PowerPoint,” Williams told NPR.
Akiak is expected to get its first installation of broadband internet later this month, and it will be a serious game-changer for the community of 462 people. Williams’ internet bill will drop down to a quarter of what she currently pays and it will give residents a chance to better access outside online resources such as school tutorials.
“The kids have lost between a year and a year-and-a-half of their education, because of no technology, no internet at the home, and no remote learning,” Williams, who also works as a childcare worker, said. “We may be forced to do a lockdown again. But we’re going to be prepared this time.”
According to Health Affairs, in 2018 “the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimated that one-quarter of rural Americans — and one-third of Americans living on tribal lands — did not have access to broadband (meaning download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second). By contrast, less than 2 percent of urban Americans lacked that same access.
This lack of broadband internet access not only stifled rural economies, but crippled much-needed rural hospitals. Since 2005, over 180 rural hospitals have shuttered and around 25% are in danger of closing, percentage that’s been accelerated by the pandemic.
“It’s unfortunate, but these small towns are older, sicker, poorer,” Alan Morgan, the CEO of the National Rural Health Association told CNN. “You’ve got these populations clustered in these hundreds of small towns that are absolutely the wrong population to be together.”
Broadband internet though will be a much-needed tool in the toolbox to help with this problem. Tennessee U.S. Representative John Rose called the need for broadband internet “critical” for rural America, saying “rural communities can utilize telehealth services to access quality care without having to make a long trip to see a physician in person.”
Millions will be distributed to states to help bring broadband internet to their rural communities. and hopefully alleviate a host of problems. Texas and Wisconsin for example, are getting $100 million.
It will of course take time to bring broadband internet to every rural community that needs it. But bringing fellow Americans out of the dial-up dark ages is worth the effort.
For Akiak resident Lena Foss, it means no more standing around while she waits for YouTube to load a tutorial on how to fix a broken dryer. “When I have internet, everything I need for this dryer will be ordered,” Foss said, adding that she could even learn to fix her neighbors’ appliances. ” I would probably start a small business calling it YouTube-Fix-It-All.”
Photos via Unsplash, Carolina Public Press, Creative Commons