COVID-19 Highlights the "Digital Disadvantage"

March 2020 - Jeff Johnston


The coronavirus and the measures to prevent its spread are wreaking havoc for all Americans. But for those living in rural America, the disruption is even worse.

The issues are obvious for rural Americans who are required to work from home but don’t have access to the internet.

But even those who do have access to the internet they could see degraded network performance. This could make working from home, or receiving telemedicine, problematic.

Networks are designed to support peak traffic levels during the evening when more people are at home streaming video or surfing the internet. But when residents of an entire rural city are spending all day at home trying to work, network traffic will sky rocket. This could make it hard to use video conferencing applications, which will be in high demand over the next few months.

To accommodate the surge in demand it’s likely that many rural fixed broadband providers will need to increase their network backhaul capacity. This comes at a cost. And if these rural customers have unlimited data plans, the incremental cost will be an issue for rural providers with thin margins.

By contrast, this is much less of an issue for large operators servicing urban customers given their scale and ownership economics.

For rural customers using a fixed wireless broadband connection, it’s even worse. In these networks, the amount of capacity between the home and tower is, well, fixed. So, unless operators install new wireless equipment - which takes time and money – video conferencing applications will suffer. And even if new wireless equipment is installed, the backhaul challenge still remains.

Hopefully this disruption will be short-lived, but it’s just another example of how rural Americans are at a digital disadvantage to their urban and suburban counterparts.