Friday, July 31, 2020

Pandemic highlights need for better rural internet access

Lack of access to health care and education during the pandemic has highlighted the need for better broadband access in rural areas, Gene Zaleski reports for The Times and Democrat in Orangeburg, S.C., pop. 13.964.

For example, many students in Orangeburg County didn't have good enough internet access to do their homework or distance learning this spring, so the county school district outfitted buses with wi-fi and sent them into neighborhoods where it was needed, Zaleski reports.

Even using data from the Federal Communications Commissions, which tends to overestimate rural broadband access, a Times and Democrat-created data map shows wide swaths of rural South Carolina with inadequate broadband access, defined by the FCC as a minimum speed of 25 megabits per second for download and 3 Mbps upload.

Other rural areas across the nation are facing the same issues; recent reports estimate that 42.8 million people in the U.S. lack broadband access, and about 70% of people with no broadband access are in rural areas, according to a 2019 study.

Verizon is testing a new LTE home internet service specifically meant to bring faster internet to rural areas, but it's still comparatively slow. "Verizon says LTE Home customers will receive unlimited data and download speeds of 25Mbps with peak speeds of 50Mbps," Monica Chin reports for The Verge. "That’s much slower than the best speeds available through Verizon’s Fios or 5G services, which promise speeds of up to 940Mbps for the top plans." Verizon does not say what upload speeds customers would receive.

A 4G home internet plan already offered by Verizon notably says it averages only 5-12 Mbps download and 2-5 Mbps upload. It's unclear if the new rural service would rely on different equipment or a more robust cell tower network in the test areas to achieve the speeds advertised.

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