Without broadband, rural economies may miss out on the post-pandemic recovery

Without broadband, rural economies may miss out on the post-pandemic recovery
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The conventional wisdom has been that major cities have borne the economic brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic and face the longest odds of a full and quick recovery. And while the future of many American cities may truly be challenging, the pandemic’s toll on rural economies may be even more difficult to overcome in the long-term because of insufficient digital infrastructure and broadband access.

According to the FCC, nearly four in ten rural Americans do not have access to high-speed internet, roughly ten times the rate among urban Americans. And almost a third of farmers have no access to the internet at all, according to the USDA.

Broadband internet is no longer a modern luxury. It’s essential infrastructure to participate in the economy of today and tomorrow, and the lack of broadband creates perhaps the largest opportunity costs facing Americans who live in rural areas.

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Take, for example, the travel rebound. With a majority of Americans now having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, this summer may be the biggest travel rebound in a century, and rural and small-town America is uniquely positioned to reap some of the greatest benefits of these new travel trends.

Over the last year, millions of Americans living in cities — feeling cooped up within their own four walls and desperate for a safe escape — hit the road to discover, or rediscover, rural and small towns in their own backyard.

We at Airbnb saw this trend take hold early in the pandemic. In June 2020 alone, according to our data, hosts on Airbnb in rural America earned over $200 million on the platform, an increase of more than 25 percent over what hosts in these areas earned during the same month the year prior. By August of 2020, more guests were staying in the Catskills and Hudson Valley than in New York City. Since the pandemic began, the typical rural host has earned nearly $9,000 — more than $2,000 above than the average in 2019.

And even as cities begin to open back up and as travel slowly returns to urban centers, this rural trend will likely remain. According to the Airbnb Report on Travel & Living, in 2015, rural travel accounted for less than 10 percent of nights booked globally on Airbnb; now in 2021, it now accounts for more than double that, with many of those nights booked belonging to families: 42 percent of the nights booked for family travel this summer are in rural destinations, up from 32 percent during the summer of 2019.

And yet, many Americans living in rural communities are unable to benefit from these economic shifts because they lack the internet access necessary to utilize sharing economy platforms, connect with a growing cohort of potential customers or guests, and earn income — especially at a moment of unprecedented economic hardship.

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We have seen firsthand the value of broadband access in this crucial moment, as home sharing meets people’s financial needs. According to our latest survey of our global host community, because of the pandemic, one third of hosts personally suffered a pay cut or lost work hours in 2020, or lived with someone who did; 14 percent of them or someone in their household lost their job or got laid off.

The digital divide has an enormous opportunity cost for Americans living in rural communities, especially with clear evidence of that toll in today’s unprecedented return of travel alone. But these roadblocks have impacts far beyond missed opportunities for direct earnings — they can ripple throughout an entire local economy. According to a recent report by Oxford Economics on the economic impact of the Airbnb community in select destinations worldwide, in the destinations studied, Airbnb guests’ local spending supported over 300,000 jobs, including tens of thousands of jobs in industries like restaurants and retail that have been hit hard by the pandemic.

At Airbnb, we are doing our part to make sure that Americans in rural areas are able to benefit from the opportunity created by the rural travel trend. Last month, we announced the launch of the Airbnb Entrepreneurship Academy in the U.S., a partnership program to make it easier for rural communities to host and benefit from the tourism economy.

If one thing is clear about the economic recovery in rural America, it is that their challenges will require a comprehensive approach from both the public and private sector.

There is a clear path for the return of travel post-pandemic to transform the economies of communities across rural America, and the livelihoods of the families who live there — we have seen that potential. That change starts with access to the types of infrastructure these areas have gone without for too long.

A robust, bipartisan infrastructure deal would put the country one step closer to realizing meaningful investments in broadband — and Airbnb urges lawmakers to enact one. Congress should support expanding broadband deployment, including tailored approaches to meet the unique challenges facing rural communities. We remain committed to being an accessible and impactful partner to elected officials in this work and look forward to the development of internet infrastructure solutions that meet the location and needs of every American.

Laphonza Butler is the North American Public Policy Director for Airbnb.