The idea of remote work seemed like a pipe dream not too long ago. How many of us remember hearing “Get off the internet, I need to make a phone call”? Fast forward a few decades and we can now work from anywhere—if we have the high-speed internet access to do so.
Broadband internet has become a necessity for households in the U.S. Nothing has made this clearer than the nearly overnight shift to remote work brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. Businesses across the country were left scrambling to ensure that employees had the tools and resources needed to get their work done at home. Many schools were in even worse shape, as remote learning had not been widely enabled or even planned for.
What’s more, the U.S. government was forced to recognize how many citizens are without adequate internet access, and the impact that has on the country and the economy. We saw that no matter how remote-ready organizations are, they ultimately must overcome the same hurdle; our country’s digital infrastructure is not yet equipped and available enough for our increasingly digital society.
The Two Problems: Access and Cost
WiFi and 5G internet are becoming more widespread, and broadband speeds continue to increase. Unfortunately, that access and speed is mostly concentrated around major metropolitan areas. The most recent data from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) indicates that broadband internet is not available to approximately 14.5 million Americans. Further, research done by Microsoft in 2020 indicated that approximately 120 million Americans were not using the internet at broadband speeds. Improvements have been made since then, but it’s a tough realization that many Americans had such limited access during a crisis that demanded we stay in our homes.
It’s easy to think that availability of high-speed internet service is the issue, but cost is just as much of a problem for many Americans. During the height of the pandemic, some students even had to use WiFi at fast food restaurants to complete their schoolwork because of inadequate internet service at home.
The high cost of internet service is why the Biden administration recently launched the Affordable Connectivity Program. The program caps the cost of high-speed internet to $30 per month for eligible households, and 20 leading internet providers have signed on. While this does not eliminate the barrier of cost entirely, it’s a massive step forward for the U.S. We are removing one of the most significant barriers to broadband internet access for most households.
Creating More Opportunities
For many people living in low-income areas, including rural and inner-city communities, there are significant economic barriers to education and career growth. People in these communities may lack the financial resources to pursue traditional higher education or to relocate for better career opportunities. This leads to areas of our country that are economically stagnant. Access to affordable broadband internet service brings educational and career opportunities to them.
A survey conducted by Upwork of 1,500 hiring managers predicts 36.2 million workers or 22% of Americans will be working remotely by the year 2025. Online learning is also booming, as students and workers are already taking more classes online to re-skill and upskill.
As work and learning move more online, new jobs, new skills and new opportunities will be created. There are approximately 100 million knowledge workers in the U.S. representing about 60% of the labor force. As demand for these roles increases, our economy can’t afford to leave talent behind. It’s imperative that all Americans have access to these opportunities, and that starts with ensuring every household that wants affordable high-speed internet will have it.
The Impact of Opportunity
Removing cost as a barrier to broadband internet access will open opportunities for millions of Americans. Millions more will benefit as public and private sector organizations continue to extend digital infrastructure into rural areas, tribal lands and other underserved communities. As of last year, roughly seven in 10 rural Americans (72%) say they have a broadband internet connection at home according to Pew Research Center. The high-speed internet divide is slowly but surely closing between urban, suburban and rural communities.
This is great news for the U.S. as a whole, but this is also hugely impactful for the business world. While many companies are doing everything they can to get employees back in the office, others have embraced the many advantages of remote work. One of the most significant advantages is the ability to hire talent from anywhere in the country. What’s more, employees have the flexibility to relocate, no longer needing to live near urban centers for access to work in their chosen field. With more opportunities for remote work becoming available, people can work from where they are or where they want to be. Knowledge workers no longer need to funnel into particular areas of the country for better opportunities. They have the option to remain in their communities where they can support community growth and their local economy.
As both affordable high-speed internet access and remote work opportunities become more widespread, new and better economic opportunities spread with them. More people will have access to online educational resources, including higher education. Fewer workers will need to move away from their communities in search of better-paying opportunities. And perhaps most importantly, companies will have an increased incentive to invest in currently underserved communities, knowing that their employees live and work there.