COVID-19 has made our reliance on the internet abundantly clear. With three-quarters of Americans “sheltering in place” to slow the spread of the virus, we are using broadband more than ever. But more than 42 million Americans lack reliable access to high-speed internet at home, creating a severe gap in lifesaving telehealth treatments, online learning programs, and jobs in the digital economy. We need to prioritize our communications networks to bring high-quality fiber broadband from coast to coast.
Telecommunications networks are always critical infrastructure, but particularly in the pandemic. At-home broadband use is surging: Plume reports more than 100 percent increases in the number of people who are active online during the workday in the United States. This could be for anything from telehealth to distance learning. Virtual medical care is quickly emerging as a critical tool to fight the spread of the virus; one telehealth software vendor reported a 2,000 percent increase in visits to its platform for virtual consultations. Many more Americans are accessing government services online, including applying for unemployment or requesting an absentee ballot. With our schools and workplaces now online, too, 52 million students rely on remote education to finish the school year and millions more telework from home.
Interestingly, the pandemic has also changed the way we use the internet. Previously, asymmetrical, one-way download use (think: streaming Netflix) took up much of our at-home bandwidth, but now, symmetrical uploads and downloads (think: video conferencing) are much more prevalent. Last-mile networks still have a lot of asymmetric technologies and the upstream gives out first. This is where wireless networks and satellites flounder, but fiber shines, as it can easily handle asymmetric traffic. Meeting today’s connectivity demands requires investment in sustainable networks — and that means fiber broadband.
Sadly, many Americans fall on the wrong side of the digital divide and do not have access to fiber broadband or even any at-home broadband at all. While much progress has been made, nearly 63 percent of homes in the U.S. still do not have access to fiber broadband networks and 24 percent of rural Americans lack access to high-speed internet. Some students are doing schoolwork in cars outside of closed libraries, Starbucks, or McDonald’s restaurants. Other people can’t access homework, telework, or telehealth at all. This is unacceptable.
We need work to ensure all Americans have access to reliable fiber networks and the internet that powers the 21st Century. And it has to be fiber. Fiber broadband is a superior technology that provides much greater bandwidth and speeds for more robust video, internet, and voice services. The accelerated deployment of fiber broadband infrastructure is essential to close the digital divide, provide strong networks to support our changing online needs, and build resilience against existential threats such as pandemics. And once we deploy fiber in a community, it is a gift that keeps on giving. Fiber not only connects homes, schools, businesses, and anchor institutions to the internet, but also provides necessary critical infrastructure for 5G, towers, wireless networks, the Internet of Things, and smart city applications.
Broadband has never been more important. Now is the time to include fiber broadband funding into stimulus legislation to bridge the digital divide once and for all. Let’s build once and build right with future-proof fiber networks.
Lisa R. Youngers is President and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association. She has more than 20 years of experience in telecommunications, most recently as CEO of Nextlink Wireless. Follow her on Twitter @youngerslisa.