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This is part 2 of BLiNQ Networks’ “Bridging the Rural-Urban Digital Divide” blog series exploring the current state of broadband internet access in rural America and the challenges customers are facing in light of social distancing and COVID-19.

Day after day, broadband internet access is proving indispensable for day-to-day activities. 

As we continue to practice social distancing, our internet access is shaping our reality and defining our access to essential services, products, and even income.

It is undeniable that the urban areas were more prepared for this abrupt shift to a digital landscape. However, the rural communities have been left behind in terms of broadband infrastructure and capabilities.

The impact of this digital divide is wide-ranging.

We are breaking down a few examples to show what it means to live without high-speed broadband internet in rural areas.

  1. Telehealth

Perhaps the most important example to discuss in the current climate is access to remote medical services, or telemedicine. 

Telehealth or telemedicine refers to virtual medical appointments or services, such as check-ups, consultations, or remote patient monitoring.

These services are vital nowadays as patients are increasingly asked to stay at home to lower their chances of infection as well as to lessen the load on the healthcare system.

Yet, those who need access to e-health most are the ones who are least likely to get it.

Rural broadband with incredibly slow internet speeds has made it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to offer telemedicine. 

Over 60% of those who live more than a 70-minute drive away from a physician don’t have internet service that can handle telehealth.

Those who are most vulnerable, such as elderly Americans or those with pre-existing conditions, are still forced to travel far to hospitals, where the risk of infection is higher. Their other viable option is not receiving care at all.

Statistics for Telehealth Access in Rural America with a patient having a video consultation with a doctor on a tablet

Studies continue to prove how essential telehealth is for improving life expectancy and healthcare outcomes. But for rural communities to reap those benefits, we need to equip them with proper broadband infrastructure.

  1. Education

Schools and universities were among the first institutions to close and transition to virtual modes of operation when the coronavirus outbreak happened. 

Yet, once again, huge disparities in internet access in rural communities make such alternative learning approaches impractical.

Students in rural communities are living through the repercussions of what is referred to as the “Homework Gap.”

Statistics of rural students access to internet with school kids running wearing backpacks

The homework gap is the disproportionate access, or lack thereof, to at-home broadband internet that limits the students’ ability to participate in distance learning and using online educational resources.

Over 12 million students in remote and rural areas can’t access the internet at home.

Suffering from this inequality results in an “achievement gap”, meaning students fall behind on developing their academic and professional skills as compared to those who can take part in virtual learning.

Considering how difficult it is to put in place network infrastructure in a short span of time, students have resorted to finishing their homework on school buses or driving to parking lots of closed businesses and institutions to be able to access WiFi. 

Teachers have also opted for hand-delivering printed homework packets to student houses as well as setting up mobile Wi-Fi hot spots to help students in this difficult time.

Both educators and students are calling for reforms and extensions of broadband deployment in rural areas, as extended school closures show how essential internet access is for education.

  1. Remote Work

The impact of COVID-19 on the labour market has been immense. As many businesses have been forced to close, an increasing number of companies have transitioned to remote work. 

The defining aspect of whether a business can still function remotely is broadband internet access

This is especially glaring in rural areas, where many businesses had no viable option to remain open due to poor or non-existent internet options.

Connectivity for workers at home differs dramatically from the access they get at the office. 

To be able to work from home, employees need high-speed, secure internet that can handle group video conferencing, large file transfers, and online collaboration tools.

Another important point to consider is that the availability of jobs that can be done remotely is largely dependent on high-speed internet.

So in urban areas with more comprehensive broadband networks, the possibility of remote work is much higher.

However, the rural workforce is still left behind in terms of remote work because businesses gravitate towards better connected locations. 

Studies have shown that ignoring remote rural areas in digital infrastructure programmes has serious economic and wider sustainability implications.” 

We are witnessing the consequences of this digital underdevelopment first-hand nowadays, highlighting the need to develop strategies to better serve rural communities.

Rural broadband internet is a lifeline for remote communities. As we continue to depend on online services moving forward, we need to adapt and deploy essential networks to ensure connectivity for all.

BLiNQ Networks helps independent service providers, telcos, and towns bring cutting-edge fixed wireless technology and high-quality internet solutions to their students, workers, educators, healthcare providers, and vulnerable communities. Learn more.