When people were asked to shelter in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic last year, it was taken for granted that modern broadband technology could serve as a bridge to normalcy.
We quickly discovered that this wasn’t the case. The bridge wasn’t wide enough or strong enough to meet the social and medical needs of those who needed it the most.
While we have one of the lowest fatality rates in the country with COVID-19 itself, the pandemic disproportionately affected older people. While we were sheltering at home, our older population fell off the schedules of their doctors and other medical providers, fearful of contracting the virus. Other ailments and illnesses went untreated due to either lacking broadband or lacking Internet speed to successfully run teleconferencing programs such as Zoom or FaceTime.
North Carolina has the second-largest rural population in the United States. Almost 40 percent of our state’s population lives in the state’s 80 rural counties. Many families are multigenerational—the grandchildren need the Internet to learn, and the grandparents need it for telehealth. For those alone or living in congregate situations, access to the Internet is a lifeline for mental health. People need each other, and people need to see each other, even if only through face-timing a loved one.
Hindsight as it is, having appropriate technology for the most vulnerable populations would have helped many better survive the tribulations of COVID-19.
To its credit, the legislature continues to seek successful ways to address the issue, but there is no one size fits all solution. “Last mile” Internet providers are the harbingers of comprehensive broadband, and an emphasis on providing funding and allowing the market to provide opportunities for these local companies to provide reliable service remains imperative for our state. We will see several innovative initiatives to come, including aerial wireless broadband among other technologies.
On the surface, North Carolina's broadband situation is not terrible. Roughly 95 percent of the state's population has access to at least basic high-speed service (25 Mbps download, 3 Mbps upload). However, much of this service comes with an outdated and unreliable infrastructure. Less than 40 percent of the state has access through fiber technology, which is the best way to continue ramping up speeds as the modern Internet becomes more demanding.
For retirees, high-speed service in many parts of the state can be so costly that people on fixed incomes cannot afford it. The cost of high-speed internet needs to be in line with the cost of basic utilities such as water and power. Affordable, reliable access to the internet should be made available to our elderly population, who live on fixed incomes.
Whatever form the next crisis takes, we must ensure that no one is on the wrong side of a "digital divide," especially our older people. We can, and we must.
Richard Rogers is the executive director of the North Carolina Retired Governmental Employees’ Association.