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Broadband access for all -- are we there yet?

Broadband penetration among adults in the US – is the job done? According to Parks Associates, 88% of US households have broadband. Do you find that confusing? Startling in the face of all of the state and government initiatives to connect more households? Minimum speed issues possibly going to be revised? What speeds are they talking about? Watch a Netflix movie? Participate in a zoom call? Not exactly. Turns out the current speed definitions “aren’t high enough to do anything.” Not a single area of West Virginia is properly served, according to that June 25, 2021 article. Colorado, Virginia – same complaint. Slow speed access is akin to no-speed access. Moving slowly past the speed issue – gets you to the adoption problem for older adults. What’s that you say? 22 million older adults, or 42% of the 65+ population, lack wireline broadband? Shouldn't that matter?

The lack of any Internet access for older adults was a Covid-19 nightmare. Have we so quickly forgotten the April and March vaccine stampede? Have we forgotten that the only sign-up mechanism at the time was online? Have we forgotten how many people (including relatives) sat online at 7:00 a.m. on Wednesdays only to find slots gone by 7:15? The 88% job done number doesn’t accurately communicate the 42% of the 54 million adults aged 65+ that have no broadband, slow or speedy – and so were dependent on concerned family, friends, community members to help them get access when it was not optional.

High speed Internet at usable speeds is expensive. Never mind the cost of extending high speeds to rural areas of the US. More to the point, the 88% ('Job just about done!') number does not address the connectivity cost gap, which is a national nightmare of variable pricing. To what degree does the 88% number reflect any of these underlying factors – slow is useless, price is a barrier, lack of connectivity worsened social isolation for everyone, but was especially nightmarish for older adults during the pandemic. Meanwhile, telehealth emergency orders enabling doctors to practice across state lines (using a telehealth services like Teladoc) is expiring in five states, including New York and Florida. And how long will a phone call with a doctor count as a reimbursed telehealth interaction?

Even if the country reaches the peak of 100% connected, that is just step one. AARP and others are publicizing the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program started by the FCC to provide a break of up to $50 on broadband costs (for low income households, and as long as funds hold out). But access to the Internet is only part of the problem – what can really only be done on it is the rest. The health system portal for appointment scheduling, the online pharmacy for prescriptions, online banking (yes, branches continue to close), FaceTime and Zoom sessions with long distance relatives, and oh, yeah, all that ‘social media’. Sure, these work, sort of, on smartphones. But let’s not linger on smartphone limitations. This blog post is being typed on an actual multi-window computer, with a (gasp) keyboard, not a smart phone or a touch-screen tablet. And that means it is easy with this high speed broadband connection to  search for information and then just keep typing. Even if much online information is wrong, inadequate or presented in misleading search results -- everyone should have that same seriously high speed access – to meet their needs, in their home at all times, at a price they can afford, with the training and knowledge of how to navigate and benefit.

 

Comments

The last sentence is a true manifesto statement.

My anecdotal experience pointed to an additional perspective - low digital agility. It goes beyond training and knowledge of how to navigate. It points to the agility required to consider several pieces of information at the same time, understand which part is relevant, and not get confused.

Consumer Reports research on broadband service/costs: https://www.consumerreports.org/upload/broadband

For low-income older adults, with $50 discount on broadband costs per month, and also a $100 credit to buy a tablet or computer.

Great piece. Broadband access - has the pandemic proven it's a utility? How many seniors couldn't get access to resources and vaccinations because they had no way to get online?

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