Most of us assume that the majority of people living in the United States have a reliable internet connection in 2018. Right?
In many urban and suburban areas, that’s true. But in rural areas, that’s still not a reality for everyone.
In fact, data shows that about 40% of Americans living in rural locations still lack access to internet that meets the FCC’s minimum requirements to be considered “broadband” (which is essentially high-speed internet with 24/7 access).
This is a major issue. From a global perspective: There are people living in northern parts of Namibia who have better access to broadband internet than some who live in rural parts of America.
Still Unplugged in 2018
Let’s start by laying a foundation of understanding around internet speed. Nothing too technical, just some basic information to add some context.
Many urban areas with cable internet connectivity can reach speeds of up to 2 Gbps, or 2,000 Mbps. At these speeds, you can stream HD video, quickly download files online, and pages load fast as you click around the internet.
In contrast, there are currently two main options for broadband connections in rural America:
- DSL connection, offering up to 6 Mbps
- Satellite broadband, offering 2 Mbps
That’s right: 2,000 Mbps in an urban area, and a mere 2-6 Mbps in rural areas. That’s quite the difference. This gap in speed and reliability has major implications for people trying to access the same online services many of us take for granted.
Having the Choice to Go Unplugged
If that’s not enough, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of our more rural neighbors. With limited internet access, there are a few new realities we’d have to face.
You’re a teacher. One of your students wants to stream a documentary online to take notes for a social studies report - but the video just keeps buffering until the student ultimately gets frustrated and gives up.
You’re an adult trying to land a better job. You go online and try to apply for a new position that was posted on a company’s website, only to discover your slow connection keeps timing out before your résumé finishes uploading to the site.
You’re a college graduate. After struggling to find relevant job openings in your hometown, you think about trying remote work - maybe even freelancing. But every time you go to schedule a Skype interview with a potential lead, your video call drops - and you end up missing out on the opportunity.
In every one of these scenarios, we can see how a sub-par internet connection impacts different opportunities in a negative way. And this brings to light a reality many of us haven’t even considered: High-speed, reliable internet is still a luxury.
Personally, I’m part of the more fortunate majority of people who have access to fast, reliable broadband internet, despite living in a semi-rural locale. But for many people living near me in more rural areas, being online or off is not a choice. It’s the unfortunate reality. And this limitation impacts everyone from students attending schools in these areas to the adults who miss out on economic opportunities that are possible from a fast internet connection.
Life in Rural Illinois with Limited Internet
In Illinois, where I live, there’s an especially large gap in internet service for those living in rural areas. A recent FCC report showed that 56% of rural Illinois residents (about 770,000 people) still don’t have broadband internet connectivity, which is notably higher than the national average of about 40%.
What’s more: Only a small portion of people in rural Illinois counties are able to access the DSL or satellite services that provide the 2-6 Mbps speed internet. And there are four counties within the state that currently have zero access to broadband internet.
The impact of this reality is far and wide. At the school-age level, the limited internet access puts rural students at a major disadvantage. Across 100 districts in Illinois, more than 90,000 students miss out on opportunities to stream educational videos, to access remote learning, and to take online tests.
And in daily life for rural residents, being unplugged has impacts that range from inconvenient to seriously restricting. Not only does slow (or no) internet connection make it impossible to do basic things most internet users take for granted (like managing your banking or streaming Netflix), it limits economic opportunities provided by the internet, too. You can’t run an independent online business if you don’t have a reliable internet connection, for example. You also can’t work remotely.
All of these factors add to the unique feelings of isolation that comes with living in a rural area. While you’re geographically separated from larger communities, you’re also cut off from the ability to stay connected via the internet. It’s unplugged on a whole different level.
A lot of what we’ve covered so far - it feels kind of heavy. I know I feel that way any time I talk about these issues - or any issues, for that matter, that spotlight a demographic of people facing an unfair advantage and a major obstacle. But the good news is that progress is being made. From federal legislation to private-sector projects, there is work being done to increase access to high-speed internet for all. And you can help, too.
- Make a donation or support an organization like EveryoneOn, which strives to provide low-cost internet and computer access to underserved populations.
- Advocate for and support local initiatives to bring high-speed internet to rural schools and communities.
- In your own projects, think about how you can accommodate users with slower internet connections by using lightweight design elements that load quickly.
Change won’t happen overnight, but each small victory helps even the playing field for urban and rural communities across the US.
Kaleigh Moore is a freelance writer specializing in ecommerce and software. She also writes for publications like Inc. Magazine, Entrepreneur, and HuffPost.
Unplugged is about better understanding how technology shapes our lives and work - for those who disconnect from overflowing feeds, but also those fighting for access to the future of school, work, and entertainment.