The digital divide has been a problem in the United States for decades, and the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need for connectivity for telehealth, working remotely and being schooled at home, noted Jim Fryer, Managing Editor of Inside Towers and moderator for a Virginia Wireless Association webinar that focused on ways to close the gap.
The Biden Administration plans to spend $100 billion in infrastructure which could prove a huge step in the right direction, but the initiative will exclude mobility provided by wireless if it requires symmetrical upload and download speeds of 100 Mbps, said WIA CEO and President Jonathan Adelstein. Only fiber solutions can meet those speeds. While fiber is important – and more fiber deployments are essential to 5G mobile broadband – it is not the only way to close the digital divide, Adelstein said. “Essentially you don’t want people in rural Virginia forced to return home or to the farmhouse if they want a high-speed connection,” Adelstein noted. Requiring fiber built to the last mile would deprive rural Americans of the advantages of mobility as well as broadband.
Mobility solutions make sense
Further, many applications like precision agriculture require mobile broadband. Wireless broadband solutions are more cost-effective in rural areas with rugged terrain, like the Shenandoah Valley. Sometimes in Virginia the closest hospital requires driving long distances. Wireless broadband, and ultimately 5G connectivity, will transform ambulances into mobile emergency rooms, Adelstein said. “During that golden hour when saving lives or preventing disabilities is possible, you can get that with 5G.” First responders also need the connectivity and mobility that is possible with 5G to respond to emergencies.
A fiber-only solution also is troublesome for low-income Virginians who have cut the cord, Adelstein continued. They are not willing or able to pay more for a broadband connection at home and are willing to use their wireless devices for that connectivity. “I think technological neutrality not only provides consumers with mobility, but the most megabits for the taxpayer dollar.” While video-streaming accounts for 60 percent of Internet traffic, it is primarily downstream and is a good example of why symmetrical speeds are not needed.
Connectivity is key to equity
The dictionary describes the digital divide as the economic, educational and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those who do not, said Cheryl Austein Casnoff, MPH Director, Health Policy and Analytics at MITRE, a not-for-profit organization that manages federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs) supporting seven U.S. government agencies. During the COVID-19 pandemic, people who did not have access to telehealth services were left out of the healthcare system. Even after the pandemic, telehealth services could become permanent for some segments like mental health services, she said. “We also realize that not all people … have the same ability to access.”
President Biden has put a lot of emphasis on equity. “And just as with every other aspect of the pandemic, we’ve seen disparities in access to care, as well as access to connectivity.” People need to have bandwidth, access to connectivity and digital literacy.
“And unfortunately, the pandemic has really widened the gap of the haves and have nots in so many different ways. We talk a lot in the health space about social determinants of health, that might be living in a food desert, it might be not having your electricity or having it shut off. It might not mean having a healthy home, it might be lacking transportation. But now we really talk about connectivity as part of a social determinant.” Casnoff’s slide presentation can be viewed here.
Digital literacy matters
Andria McClellan, a candidate for Virginia Lieutenant Governor, said she wants to be the state’s chief broadband strategist. “We have to have an all-of-the-above approach. It can’t just be fiber; it can’t just be wireless … every community is going to have a slightly different opportunity. In Norfolk we think at least 25 percent of our homes don’t have access to high-speed internet. And it’s not because it doesn’t exist, it’s because it’s not affordable.”
McClellan posited the digital divide is a three-legged stool of connectivity, available devices and digital training and literacy. “I think this should be our moonshot. Virginia should strive to be the most connected state in the country. It’s obviously a matter of all the things we’ve talked about in terms of education and healthcare, our agricultural community economic development, but it is it is a function of our children’s future as well.”
You can view the webinar here.