As the 2020 spring semester approached and the scope of the pandemic became clear, faculty at Washington State University accepted they would not soon return to typical campus life.
They needed a new plan.
Their first idea was to give students access to online courses at WSU Extension locations across the state. But just as a strategy formed, a statewide “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order prohibited such gatherings.
Soon, the essential nature of internet access would become even more evident—particularly in rural communities, where Pew Research estimates one in five Americans lacks access to high-speed internet services. It was a realization already playing out across the nation. While health services, businesses, school systems and others increasingly depend on internet access, the pandemic emphasized its importance.
“We needed a Plan B,” says Monica Babine, senior associate at WSU Extension’s program for digital initiatives. “We began exploring the idea of taking our internet access from inside the building to outside.”
Rural Washington libraries had long offered internet access in their parking lots. Extension worked with the libraries and the Washington State Broadband Office to open opportunities to join with more than a dozen private and nonprofit organizations throughout the state.
The result was more than 600 drive-in Wi-Fi hot spots. Community libraries hosted about half the locations, allowing students and the general public free access to high-speed internet.
“What started as an emergency response has become so important that the Broadband Office is asking for more funding to expand it next year,” Babine says. “We’ve heard from students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to take classes, entrepreneurs who are using hot spots to conduct business and telehealth appointments that are opening medical access to providers whose doors are closed.”
A Class of Their Own
Traditionally, the “homework gap” has been a concern for students who have access to the internet in the classroom, but not when doing schoolwork at home. However, research by the Quello Center at Michigan State University indicates performance gaps extend even further.
The center’s report finds rural middle school and high school students without reliable internet access are less likely to pursue a college degree, score lower on standardized tests, and tend to have less interest in careers related to science, technology, engineering and math.
High-speed internet not only can help boost students’ performance, it gives them access to educational opportunities their local school district might not have the resources to provide.
“One of the things we have heard in our research is how important high-speed internet is to students in small, remote school districts when it comes to accessing classes,” says Anna Read, an officer for the Broadband Research Initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts. “They can take advanced placement classes or get technical training that their school district couldn’t offer on its own.”
The 21st Century Economy
The same is true for small businesses that can use the internet to tap into the global economy from a small town or even their own backyard. In fact, a lack of service hamstrings many rural businesses before they even have a chance to get off the ground.
“We heard so many stories about high-speed internet helping businesses participate in the 21st century economy,” Read says. “Without that service, it is very challenging for rural businesses to grow or even retain the business they have.”
As access to high-speed internet expands in rural areas, these communities are quickly becoming attractive alternatives to major cities.
For existing businesses looking to establish a satellite office, gig workers in need of affordable homes or startups searching for locations, rural America can provide a better quality of life with less overhead.
“I could start a business in a rural community for a lot less than downtown Seattle,” Babine says. “If you watch migration out of rural communities, it was huge for many years, but we’re starting to see it reverse.
People are taking their job or business idea and moving out to where they can take advantage of the quality of life and safety, and get away from the health challenges of big cities.”
No Going Back
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of connectivity across the board. But few areas show the need as acutely as health care.
For many rural Americans, a trip to the nearest hospital can take hours, meaning remote access to specialized care is often the difference between life and death.
Across the country, telehealth has helped connect patients to the care they need. In McKee, Kentucky, a virtual living room program allows veterans to consult with Veterans Affairs health care providers from the comfort of a private room in their local library. Throughout Minnesota and North Dakota, Essentia Health’s telestroke program makes it possible to diagnose and begin treating stroke patients on their way to the hospital.
In the past, helping patients accustomed to in-person visits with their doctor become comfortable with new telehealth options has been a challenge. But with the pandemic forcing many Americans to adapt to remote work, that transition may no longer be as much of a hurdle.
“In early March, I was still selling the idea of remote work and telehealth,” Babine says. “We’re not selling it anymore.
The pandemic has made telehealth very global and very personal. I think the reality is that we’re not going back. The norms have changed, and people will say, ‘Why do I have to go to the doctor 50 miles from here when I could just get on the phone with them?’”
While the past year has made the internet gap between rural and urban America clearer, Babine is optimistic about bridging it. Between shifting norms and the partnerships WSU has developed with organizations across Washington, Babine sees a bright future ahead for high-speed service in rural communities.
“Even when I worked for one of the major telcos in this state in the ’70s and early ’80s, I never saw such tremendous collaboration between providers and stakeholders,” Babine says. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I have to say I have never been so hopeful.”