Broadband Access a Make or Break for Rural Health Amid COVID-19

By HMS
Apr. 14, 2020

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With 90% of Americans under stay at home orders to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, use of virtual communication has surged. From telework to telehealth to telehappy hour, people have quickly become acclimated to new ways of staying connected while staying indoors, kicking the nation’s broadband infrastructure into overdrive.

But what does the COVID-19 pandemic look like in a world without adequate broadband access? The fear is that for the millions of rural Americans living in this world, the impact could be severe. Here’s why experts say the current health crisis is a compelling argument for a broadband upgrade.

High Need, Low Resource

Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows Americans living in rural areas are at a higher risk of death from five leading, potentially preventable causes than those living in urban areas. The study names several demographic, environmental and socioeconomic factors accounting for this disparity — among them, older age, a higher prevalence of chronic disease and lower income levels as compared to urban residents.

For these high healthcare need populations, distance and transportation barriers create additional challenges. Nearly 200 rural hospitals have closed since 2005 — eight already in 2020 — according to the Sheps Center for Health Services at the University of North Carolina. On average, rural Americans are estimated to live nearly twice as far from the nearest hospital as their urban counterparts.

“Could Be Hit the Hardest”

Although it has become clear the coronavirus itself doesn’t discriminate, older adults with certain underlying medical conditions appear to be particularly vulnerable to severe symptoms and poor outcomes from COVID-19. These risk factors, combined with social determinants of health and a lack of healthcare resources, have experts worried these communities will be particularly vulnerable to the crisis.

Bridges & Barriers in Connectivity

Internet access has proven to be a lifeline during the COVID-19 pandemic, with telehealth emerging as a critical tool in the effort to flatten the curve. Telehealth has long been promoted as a means of bridging the healthcare gap in rural America by delivering home-based care to at-risk patients where resources are limited.

As COVID-19 makes its way into rural America, whether the infrastructure exists to support this need is questionable at best; in some areas, it all but certainly does not. In its 2019 Broadband Deployment Report, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reported more than 26% of Americans living in rural areas lack access to fixed advanced telecommunications capability, with some experts questioning whether those numbers may in fact be substantially higher.

Insufficient broadband capacity will undoubtedly have implications beyond virtual care. While the ultimate effectiveness of social distancing has yet to be seen, it is currently being touted as the most effective mechanism we have for curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Without reliable internet access, social distancing measures become far less convenient and, in many ways, impractical. Working and learning remotely, connecting with friends and family, and accessing critical information and resources related to COVID-19 all rely on adequate broadband access, putting those without it at a severe disadvantage.

What’s Being Done?

Broadband advocates have long been championing for expanded broadband access in underserved areas. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, there are a number of initiatives currently underway to accelerate this expansion and keep vulnerable populations connected. These include:

  • The ACCESS BROADBAND Act, a bipartisan bill that would expand broadband access in rural, underserved areas, passed in the House on May 8, 2019, and the Senate Commerce Committee on March 11, 2020. It is now awaiting a floor vote in the Senate.
  • A newly signed stimulus package includes $200 million in FCC funding for home-based telehealth programs, plus $100 million to help fund rural broadband network upgrades.
  • The FCC’s Keep Americans Connected Initiative includes three provisions to ensure continued phone and broadband connectivity through the COVID-19 crisis. The commission is also urging the expansion, improvement and adoption of low-income broadband programs.

Catalyst for Change

As with many of our current systems, the sudden onset of COVID-19 has thrust certain infrastructural shortcomings into the spotlight. At a time when connectivity is poised to become more vital than ever to public health, it is hopeful that the measures currently in progress will address many of these insufficiencies in the long term. To learn more about the actions being taken by the FCC and supporting service providers and trade associations, see www.fcc.gov/keep-americans-connected.

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