(The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: Bifocal, Vol 41, Issue 5)
In a world where many older adults already feel isolated and lonely from inconsistent contact with family and friends, the extreme stay-at-home measures taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic have only heightened these feelings. Today, it seems, nearly everything has gone virtual, from telework to telehealth. Yet society appears to have forgotten one critical group: Americans with no access to reliable, affordable high-speed internet. For older adults, the consequences can be enormous.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, some 31 million Americans, including a large portion of seniors, do not have access to a high-speed internet service. Other reports have put that figure much higher. In my community in St. Albans, West Virginia, with a population of more than 10,000, I have access to one high-speed internet provider. The cost is exorbitant and the quality is average at best. Just 10 miles south of my home, there is no fixed high-speed internet access, and this holds true for about 30 percent of the state. When you couple this with the areas of the state that lack cell phone service, you can see we have a real connectivity problem in West Virginia. But this is not just a statewide problem. Lack of access to reliable fixed high-speed internet is a national problem.
A Pew Research Center survey found that 24 percent of Americans living in a rural setting said that access to high-speed internet was a major problem in their everyday lives. Rural Americans make up about 20 percent of the population and generally encounter the largest barriers to such access. But 13 percent of urbanites and 9 percent of suburbanites also claimed lack of high-speed internet access as a major problem, according to the Pew survey, which was conducted in 2018. This internet connectivity problem tends to suppress the growth and productivity of communities because most businesses need access to reliable high-speed internet services. The lack of business development leads to fewer jobs, less revenue and reduced services such as access to health care.
Seniors living in rural America suffer some of the greatest woes: the pandemic’s shelter-in-place orders hamper travel to health care providers and access to other necessary services. Without high-speed internet connectivity, older adults are cut off from guardians, caregivers, nurses, and doctors who rely on virtual meetings to maintain contact with the populations they serve. No internet service means no assistance from providers.
America’s high-speed internet problem is broader than the lack of access. A significant portion of individuals have issues with reliability. If your high-speed internet is running slowly or is almost completely unusable a few times a week, or your coverage area routinely experiences outages, just how useful is it to you? No access means you cannot participate in a telehealth visit, enjoy a virtual family visit, get a prescription refill (or have a harder time getting one), or work remotely.
Roughly 7.7 million seniors live at or below the poverty level. That makes technology and high-speed internet unaffordable for many. Ditto for many seniors living on fixed incomes. If an older adult is grappling over whether to buy medicine or food or pay an electric bill, it is unlikely that a high-speed internet service with a hefty monthly fee will be affordable. So many go without.
The pandemic has locked many Americans in their homes and amplified these challenges. How can we better prepare for the future? We need a broadband infrastructure upgrade, which requires a collaboration between providers and government. We need private sector know-how and capital along with significant government funding and oversight. We need the most technologically advanced broadband system in the world for our citizens.
The pandemic did not cause America’s connectivity problem; it unmasked it. Now we need to take this opportunity and use it to ensure that we have system to meet the demands of a virtual society for people of all ages.
Jeremiah J. Underhill is the legal director at Disability Rights of West Virginia, and a co-coordinator for Working Interdisciplinary Network of Guardianship Stakeholders (WINGS) in West Virginia.