Correlation is not causation, but this correlation should make all of us pause: lack of Internet access linked to Covid-19 deaths.
First, the research. Second, our abysmal lack of an inclusive broadband policy.
Researchers examined data (22 January 2020 to 18 February 2021) from 3,142 counties in the 50 US states plus the District of Columbia. They found that “social determinants of health and COVID-19 mortality varied across racial and ethnic groups.”
No surprise there, right?
When examining (1) Black or African American, (2) Hispanic or Latinx and (3) non-Hispanic White populations (all died at greater rates than White Americans), researchers identified 531 counties for in-depth investigation. All had “significantly higher COVID-19 mortality rates than other counties during the study period.”
Their findings (emphasis added):
Across all community types, places with limited internet access had higher mortality rates, especially in urban areas…
Furthermore, internet access was a significant factor in all communities, an observation that extends similar findings from previous work…we believe this finding suggests that more awareness is needed about the essential asset of technological access to reliable information, remote work, schooling opportunities, resource purchasing, and/or social community. Populations with limited internet access remain understudied and are often excluded in pandemic research.
How did we get here?
The road to today’s abysmal broadband policy begins during the Great Depression.
In 1930, about 90% of urban Americans had some access to electricity but only 10% of American farmers did.
In 1936, Congress passed/FDR signed (20 May 1936) the Rural Electrification Act (REA). Congress provided loans to encourage power companies to electrify rural America. In so doing, Congress continued an ethos articulated by Lincoln on 04 July 1861 (emphasis added):
On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining [a] government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.
Two “prominent policymakers” —Rep. Sam Rayburn (D-TX) and Sen. George Norris* (then R-NE)—drafted the Rural Electrification Act.
Note, too, that by 1936 the GOP had transitioned from the party of Lincoln to the punitive party of business it is today. In 1936, the pro-business faction of the GOP forced Norris, who supported public utilities, to run (successfully) for re-election as an independent.
It was community organized-and-run cooperatives, not power companies, that accepted those loans created in 1936 and strung those lines. Too few customers per mile for corporate utilities to dilute profits. Despite corporate intransigence, by 1950 about 80% American farms had electricity.
Are we there yet? Not quite!
Congress passed/FDR signed, the Communications Act of 1934 which made universal telephone service the law of the land. However, due to a lot of factors, fewer farmers had telephones in 1940 than in 1920. Finally, in 1949, Congress/Truman provided loans to finance rural telephone systems with the Telephone Amendment to REA Act.
Fast-forward to today.
At the dawn of the World Wide Web, most of us non-government/non-business folks accessed the Internet through a dial-up modem and our (heavily regulated) copper telephone line. Eventually, cable companies would provide Internet service over their (less regulated) connections to homes. Reminder: both technologies (phone and cable) get to our homes via publicly-owned property.
As ArsTechnica scathingly pointed out in 2008 (emphasis added):
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the US doesn’t have a comprehensive national broadband policy. FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein don’t think we have one either, and you’d expect them to know if such a thing existed. Yesterday’s report from the academic technology group EDUCAUSE also lamented the lack of a comprehensive strategy and laid out a powerful, practical vision of fiber to every home….
[The Bush administration released] an unabashed celebration of free-market, deregulatory policies…
Why has the government’s “get out of the way” approach to policy produced a situation where advertised broadband speeds in the US lag behind 13 OECD countries that have all seen much more government involvement?
Me in 2013 (emphasis added):
In the U.S., for example, the best deal for a 150 Mbps home broadband connection from cable and phone companies is $130/month, offered by Verizon FiOS. By contrast, the international cities we surveyed offer comparable speeds for less than $80/month, with most coming in at about $50/month.
Broadband Search (undated):
The situation is even more dire than those data suggest because of how the FCC defines broadband access.
Four years ago (only two pre-Covid19 years), Microsoft researchers determined that 162.8 million people in the US (IOW, about half) did not have “broadband speeds.” In contrast, the FCC asserted only 24.7 million Americans did not have broadband access. That’s a difference of 6.5 times!
In Ferry County [WA], for example, Microsoft estimates that only 2 percent of people use broadband service, versus the 100 percent the federal government says have access to the service.
Why the difference? If there is one business in an area providing “broadband,”the FCC considers the entire area to have access to broadband whether or not that guess is accurate. EFF points out there are also serious problems with how the FCC defines broadband.
As this recent research reveals, Covid-19 exacerbated Internet challenges in more ways than access to work and the ability to go to school online.
Far past time for American leaders to fulfill the universal service access promised by the Communications Act of 1934. We need far more Lincoln-minded and FDR-minded statesmen and far fewer like Reagan.
* Sen. George W. Norris (R/I-NE) was quite the progressive. He supported supported the direct election of senators and abolishing the Electoral College. He blocked Henry Ford’s attempt to build a private dam on the Tennessee River at Muscle Shoals and sponsored the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933. A panel of 160 scholars advising the US Senate were charged with recommending the five best non-living Senators in U.S. history. The advisory committee picked Sen. Norris (1913-1943) in 1957. A Republican member of the Senate panel (who also defend Joseph McCarthy) vetoed that choice; he had served with and didn’t like Norris.