(Source: Broadband Today: Rural America's Critical Connection)

The optimism that naturally accompanies the start of a new decade was met with a series of challenges as 2020 unfolded. The coronavirus pandemic was chief among these, creating a public health crisis, economic hardship, and social unrest. 

Broadband was the technology that ran like a thread through efforts to combat these challenges.

A new white paper published by the Foundation for Rural Service, “Broadband Today: Rural America’s Critical Connection,” examined the role of broadband in responding to the pandemic.

 “Never before has reliable access to high-speed internet been as important as it has been during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said FRS Executive Director Pam Becker.“Broadband connects us to our work, education, health care, government programs, and — most importantly — one another. This report examines the necessary benefits broadband access has provided to rural Americans throughout the pandemic and what more can be done to ensure sustainable, affordable networks for all going forward.”

The report found a 40% uptick in broadband usage between the end of 2019 and 2020. According to the research, rural networks were able to function well due to investments thanks to recent investments by local providers and an increase in the “fiber-to-the-home penetration.”

The report estimated that around 30% of the modern workforce could be working from home multiple days a week by as soon as the end of 2021, creating a permanent demand for higher speeds and upload capacity. 

Among key sectors, the report recognized e-commerce and healthcare as rapidly growing, with 52% of customers claiming to have shifted a lot of their shopping online during the pandemic. 

As the use of telemedicine increased during the pandemic, the report estimated that around 20% of the future emergency room visits could be potentially avoided with the use of telehealth.

FRS published “Broadband Today: Rural America’s Critical Connection” with support from the Rural Telephone Finance Corporation (RTFC), and in conjunction with WordSouth, a creative services firm that works with telecommunications companies and electric utilities, and Vantage Point Solutions. The complete report is available for download here.

Stephen V. Smith is founder of WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company, and serves as its VP of Broadband Strategies. He’s a writer, former award-winning news editor and photographer for a rural newspaper, and host of the podcast Rural Broadband Today.