In the U.S., data about which homes have internet access is flawed and unreliable. Yet, one takeaway proves consistent across research: The numbers are nowhere near where they should be.
Organizations such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as prominent technology vendors, have reported varying percentages of people with internet access in the U.S. This means the true number of connected people and the degree of their connectivity are unknown. Many experts assume the numbers are lower than reported, said Mark Buell, North American regional vice president for Internet Society, a nonprofit organization that provides internet connectivity to marginalized communities globally. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the inconsistencies in these numbers.
According to the FCC, over 90% of U.S. citizens have access to high-speed broadband, which the agency defines as 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. Meanwhile, a 2019 Microsoft report claimed this number is just under 50% of U.S. citizens. Moreover, these reports -- both cited in an Internet Society paper titled "The Impact of Internet Access in Indigenous Communities in Canada and the United States" -- don't showcase the discrepancies between rural and urban areas' internet access in the U.S., Buell said.
As remote work remains prominent -- and will likely continue to be as a result of COVID-19 -- internet connectivity and broadband access become more critical to enable all people to work and learn from home.
"Since the 1990s, the internet community has done a pretty good job of connecting people," Buell said. "A little more than half of the world's population is now online … in a short period of time -- 20 to 25 years. But the remaining half are the people in communities that are the most difficult to connect."
Effect of COVID-19 on internet connectivity
While definitive research hasn't been published yet regarding COVID-19's effect on exactly who has internet access in the U.S., it's clear the pandemic has drastically shifted network traffic patterns and overwhelmed many home networks. Video conferencing, a staple of remote work and remote learning, requires increased amounts of bandwidth, which most home networks aren't built to support.
Despite COVID-19's connectivity complications, the pandemic has at least one positive result, according to Buell: It's emphasized how important internet connectivity is in times of crisis.
"It's allowed students to continue their studies at home. It's allowed millions of Americans to work from home," Buell said. "It's clearly become a critical part of the infrastructure across the country."
The internet is also crucial in both national and global economic recovery from the pandemic. Various services have moved online, including retail and grocery shopping, in addition to remote learning and remote work for businesses. A strong internet connection has proven as effective as corporate office networks and shopping centers in many cases, which means many remote workers aren't keen to return to the office and customers can shop online and safely from home.
Mark BuellRegional vice president of North America, Internet Society
"A number of companies have essentially said they're no longer seeing the place for a physical office when all you really need is a strong connection to the internet," Buell said. And he believes the internet will play a much larger role in business and schooling for years to come.
This also assumes everyone has internet access in the U.S., which is not true. Even if the FCC's data wasn't flawed -- something one FCC commissioner has admitted -- the word access can have several meanings. A remote worker can have access to the internet through libraries or cafes but not necessarily at home. In the middle of a pandemic with strict lockdown restrictions, people without home internet connectivity may not be able to work or attend school remotely.
Rural vs. urban internet access in the US
Remote workers in rural or low-income urban areas face unique challenges for internet access in the U.S.
Rural areas, in particular, face a challenge in obtaining broadband internet access due to cost and location, meaning these areas are less likely to have a nearby, local ISP to provide connectivity. One Native Hawaiian community in Pu'uhonua O Waimānalo built -- with aid from Internet Society -- and now maintain its own community network, which enabled residents to work and learn from home even before the pandemic hit.
"Having internet here, we don't have to leave this place. We now can make money from home. We can do business from home. I mean, it just means freedom to us," said Duchess Maikai, a Pu'uhonua O Waimānalo resident, in a NowThis video about the community.
If the community didn't have this network when the pandemic hit, it wouldn't have been equipped to handle the transition to remote work and remote learning, Buell said. Residents often brought children to local fast food restaurants to complete online schoolwork, and two or more people sharing a connection in one home led to poor network performance.
Now, Buell said, this native community is a great example of how internet access can enable communities to flourish in a time of crisis.
In urban areas, cities such as Philadelphia have partnered with vendors -- Comcast, in Philadelphia's case -- to provide essential internet connectivity and, occasionally, equipment to low-income homes so students can attend school virtually. This can also benefit adults in those homes so they can work remotely if their jobs and employers have this accessibility.
Urban areas often have a local ISP that already operates in certain neighborhoods, so the main issue in these areas is affordability. The cost of reliable internet access often impedes students from getting an education and remote workers working from home, which is a health and safety issue amid a pandemic.
Some political campaigns have addressed broadband and internet access in the U.S., but internet connectivity still fails to become a prominent part of the U.S. political narrative. Not only could new internet services help benefit the U.S. economy, but dedicating resources to internet connectivity in marginalized communities can enable people to work and learn from home more efficiently, both during and after a pandemic.
"It's now more apparent than ever that the internet is an important part of our society, and we really need to be putting resources behind that," Buell said.