By Liz Carey
According to research from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, recent moves by the current administration to deliver high-speed internet to rural communities will do more than connect homes to the internet – it may improve rural health.
Associate Professor Carrie Henning-Smith with the UoM’s School of Public Health said in an interview with the Daily Yonder that access to high-speed internet will affect rural health in a number of ways, including direct access as well as more indirect health outcome-affecting factors.
“For better or worse, we’re in an increasingly online world,” she said. “So if you don’t have access to that world, you’re left out in a lot of ways. Some of those ways are very specific to health and health care as we have increased coverage for telehealth and tele-mental health services. It’s really important to be able to access those. It increases access to providers and to specialists.”
But that access is also important when it comes to other determinants of health, like access to jobs and education, she said. With more jobs including some form of remote work, high-speed internet access is a necessary part of modern work life. Additionally, high-speed access is necessary for virtual learning. Even access to degree programs at some universities requires broadband access, she said.
Lack of access to the internet can increase isolation, which can also impact one’s health.
“If you think about all the ways that goods and services are connected online, and the ways that we connect with one another socially online… If you don’t have access to broadband, you’re left out of all of those spaces,” she said. “Each one of those things has meaningful implications for health.”
In late June, President Biden said the U.S. Department of Commerce would provide funding to increase high-speed connectivity in each state through the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program. The $42.45 billion grant program gives each state a minimum of $107 million, with 19 states receiving more than $1 billion. Five states – Texas, California, Missouri, Michigan and North Carolina – received more than $1.5 billion with Texas getting more than $3.3 billion and California netting more than $1.86 billion.
The White House said the BEAD allocations, combined with other investments that are part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, would states the resources to connect every resident and small business to reliable, affordable high-speed internet by 2030.
Henning-Smith said just giving states the resources to connect people isn’t enough though. While funding will make high-speed internet available, she said, it may still be out of reach for some rural residents because of affordability. Even if a rural household can afford the internet access, some may struggle to afford the devices needed to access it.
She said while the provisions of the package get rural residents closer to high-speed access there are still some issues that need to be addressed.
“This funding package will go a long way toward addressing availability and affordability and device access, but there’s still more that we need to do to make sure that everyone knows how to comfortably and meaningfully use devices,” she said. “I expect that we will still have places including the most rural and most remote places in the country that will face inequities in availability and reliability of broadband internet and in access to devices.”
In a letter to leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, the NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association, along with a coalition of 24 other rural stakeholders, asked Congress to support the ReConnecting Rural America Act as they consider the 2023 Farm Bill.
The legislation will make the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ReConnect Loan and Grant Program permanent, and will ensure networks built with program funds are used for access in areas that need it the most.
The ReConnect Loan and Grant Program provides an additional $2 billion from the USDA to primarily build high-speed internet infrastructure in eligible rural areas. In recent weeks, the USDA has announced more than $700 million in ReConnect grants in 19 states.
Among the grant recipients are the Decatur Telephone Company which will receive a loan of more than $30 million to connect 5,400 people, 257 farms, 74 businesses and four educational facilities in Benton County, Arkansas; the North-State Telephone Co. which was awarded a $10 million grant and a $10 million loan to install a fiber optic network that will connect 1,490 people, 64 businesses and 43 farms in Wasco County, Oregon; and the Goodman Telephone Company Inc. in Missouri which was given a $29,516,120 loan to get nearly 7,000 people, 206 farms, 140 businesses and two educational facilities in McDonald and Newton counties high-speed access.
Investments like those should be made in areas that need them the most, the NTCA-led coalition said, and should provide the access speeds that meet rural residents’ needs.
“With billions of dollars and millions of unserved Americans at stake, it is prudent and responsible for the federal government to invest taxpayer resources based upon more than speculation as to potential performance, marketing hype, and claims of capability not borne out of real-world applications throughout rural America,” the NTCA-led coalition wrote. “The minimum speed and other performance criteria for receiving federal funding must be determined by the needs of rural consumers and not set by the maximum capabilities some in the industry feel they can offer.”
According to the American Communities Project, 72 percent of the U.S. was connected to high-speed broadband internet in 2021. But researchers found that when Congressional districts were ranked by their population density, rural districts came out on the bottom of the connectivity scale. Only 62 percent of households in Congressional districts had rural broadband connectivity compared to 73 percent of urban districts and 76 percent of suburban districts.