The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened people’s reliance on broadband or high-speed internet access. During this time telehealth became a reality and remote learning started even at kindergarten for students. Video meetings connected office workers to keep the economy moving but also connected friends and families to foster community. The importance of internet access led the Sharecare Community Well-Being Index, 2020 State Rankings Report to include it among its best practices for community well-being because it enabled high-tech solutions and to create a sense of community while minimizing physical contact.i However, 4% of American householdsii lacked access to broadband high speed internet service even in 2020 according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). To rectify that inequality, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or as it is more commonly known, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, into law on December 15, 2021, and it allocated $65 billion to provide high-speed internet access to every American.iii
“Based on Sharecare research that establishes relationships between states with the greatest broadband access and states with higher population well-being, this investment could be significant in driving improved subjective health,” says Michael Rickles, PhD, Sharecare’s Executive Director of Research, “through removing barriers to key social risks that enhance outlook, including but not limited to online education and work, individuals living in the estimated over one in 10 households that do not have consistent access to broadband will exhibit improved equity in what has recently converted from a luxury to a utility.” Reacting to these trends, as well as the long-term discussions on the digital divide, the Biden Bipartisan Infrastructure Act set aside $65 billion to build out broadband internet access across the country, paving a path to universal broadband for every American by 2030.
Obstacles to Closing the Digital Divide
The digital divide has long been a problem in the United States, but COVID-19 intensified it. The FCC has reported that approximately 6% of Americans lacked access to broadband internet with inadequate coverage concentrated in rural America and on tribal lands. The first step toward closing the divide was to precisely identify where it was. The 2020 Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act (Broadband DATA Act)iv required the FCC to map internet access to assess where broadband was needed. However, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in September 2021 called out inaccuracies in the FCC internet maps, which overstated broadband coverage. While the GAO also issued recommendations on how to improve the accuracy of broadband mapping, it further delays an effort that began in 2017 because substantial investment in broadband cannot start until the underserved communities are identified.
Broadband Access Adds to Well-Being
While data accuracy is paramount in maximizing investment in community intervention, delays could prove detrimental to populations suffering from lower levels to broadband access.
Recent Sharecare research underscores the relationship between well-being and broadband access. Consider that states with the best broadband access ranking on average nine of 50 states for financial well-being – compared to states with the lowest broadband access ranking on average 45 of 50 states for measures of financial stress and security. Similar trends emerge for other dimensions of well-being, including broadly higher community, physical, mental, social, and purpose well-being in areas with higher levels of broadband access.
“Broadband access levels represent direct and indirect implications for individual and population well-being, including how broadband connectivity can directly impact access to healthcare through telehealth, to indirectly impacting health through limited access to education and employment opportunities”, says Michael Acker, Sharecare’s Senior Vice President of Community & Urban Services, “based on over a decade of experience in working with communities address social determinants of health and population well-being, we know that access to resources is highly correlated to higher levels of community well-being, and broadband access is now just as critical as other basic needs like food and healthcare.”
Local Communities Taking Immediate Action to Cross the Digital Divide
The Sharecare Community Well-Being Index, 2020 State Rankings Report noted that the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the need and opportunity to connect individuals to their communities via high-tech solutions that consistently enable access to tools and resources while minimizing physical contact. Narrowing the digital divide between rural and urban communities and minority and majority communities is paramount to mitigate inequities, even further exaggerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, but building out this access is costly in terms of both time and money.
While broader policy and federal funding plans roll out across the country, local communities and supporting organizations are taking immediate action to even the playing field when it comes to broadband access, including hotspots, public Wi-Fi, and defined access sites that enable diverse populations to engage with critical resources like educational content and classes, telehealth and health literacy solutions, coaching programs, financial planning and tracking tools, and more.
“As a country, we are moving in the right direction when it comes to understanding how broadband access plays a role in community equity, workforce well-being, and economic viability,” says Acker, “through motivated community coalitions, subject matter experts in built environment and infrastructure, and best-in-class partnerships, we have the opportunity to identify mitigation strategies for today and community-based strategies for tomorrow, ensuring well-being interventions take into account key social risks that define upwards of 80% of our health outcomes.
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i Sharecare Community Well-Being Index, 2020 State Rankings Report, May 2021, page 15; Accessed January 26, 2022
ii Area Comparison | Fixed Broadband Deployment Data | Federal Communications Commission (fcc.gov), Accessed January 27, 2022
iii H.R. 3684 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, PUBL058.PS (congress.gov) accessed January 27, 2022
iv United States Government Accountability Office, FCC Is Taking Steps to Accurately Map Locations That Lack Access, GAO-21-104447, September 2021; Accessed January 27, 2022