Empowering Rural Educators and Improving Healthcare Access With Middle Mile Connectivity
With two-thirds of the global population on the Internet today, five billion people use the Internet to communicate, learn, work, and play. However, as a majority of the world’s population taps into the digital economy, those without adequate broadband access are left behind.
And this connectivity gap isn’t just a problem in less developed economies. In fact, 38% of Americans living in rural areas today lack access to reliable, high-performance broadband.
Traditionally, bringing broadband connectivity to rural areas has been cost-prohibitive for both Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the consumer. It’s challenging for ISPs to justify the capital investment in establishing broadband infrastructure in rural areas with few subscribers.
Similarly, these rural customers often end up paying more for connectivity than urban subscribers. In fact, 45% of respondents to a Pew survey said they don’t have broadband at home because of the cost.
As a result, individuals in rural areas often face barriers to the job market, education, and healthcare, to name a few. In this blog, we’ll explore the ways in which rural communities face challenges due to the digital divide and how closing the digital divide with middle-mile infrastructure can help mitigate them.
How does middle-mile infrastructure help close the digital divide?
Middle-mile infrastructure provides a connection between last-mile connectivity – the connection between ISPs and their customers – and first-mile connectivity – the backbone fiber network. These connections are critical in getting faster, better-performing, cost-optimized Internet connectivity to underserved customers.
Middle-mile connectivity makes it more cost-effective for ISPs to extend their last-mile connections into previously underserved communities, addressing the most common barrier to entry into these communities. The result for customers? Life-saving healthcare access, online education and better technology in the classroom, and more innovative, technologically advanced businesses. Let’s take a closer look.
Connectivity Enables Limitless Educational Possibilities
Educational institutions were deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent shift to remote learning. For regions lacking adequate broadband access in the classroom and the home, this shift was even more of a scramble.
A few years out from the transition to remote learning, teachers and students have widely adapted to blending traditional and digital learning methods in the classroom and at home. Global EdTech investments are expected to top $350 billion by 2025 as a result.
However, some school districts have been left behind in this EdTech boom due to insufficient broadband access at school and at home, widening the digital learning gap between rural students and their peers in more densely populated and funded school systems.
Bringing middle-mile connectivity to underserved school districts will help level the playing field for these districts and their students. Adequate broadband connectivity will help provide:
- Equitable learning opportunities across a district. Broadband access unlocks a world of opportunities for interactive and multimedia learning content. Streaming educational content has exploded in popularity in classrooms, but it relies heavily on robust broadband. Online testing, too, requires dependable connectivity. Downtime and latency during assessments can severely disrupt the test-taking process.
- Virtual staff to supplement in-person instruction. Schools in rural areas have a difficult time recruiting teachers. To fill the gap, many districts are leveraging teachers from other schools or other parts of the country to teach students virtually. High-capacity, low-latency connectivity is critical to operate video conferencing tools that connect students and their remote teachers.
- Access to online educational resources like online libraries and homework platforms. Not to mention the seemingly endless library of virtual content available online beyond what a school district provides – things like educational YouTube channels and online learning programs like Khan Academy.
- Improved digital skills among faculty and students. In today’s connected world, digital literacy is a key skill, no matter what field you’re in. Training resources online and hands-on experience will help build and nurture these critical modern life skills in both students and staff.
- Learning continuity amidst disruptions like weather or health advisories. The pandemic exposed the need for remote learning in the face of disruption. With broadband access in the home, students and teachers can remain connected and continue learning despite interruptions.
Broadband Broadens Rural Healthcare Access and Information
While the pandemic disrupted learning for rural students, the impact on rural healthcare was equally dire for people in many rural communities suffering from a lack of accessible healthcare.
From 2013 to 2020, more than 100 rural hospitals across the United States closed. On average, rural residents have to travel 20 miles further for more common healthcare services like inpatient care and more than 40 miles further for specialty healthcare services. This lack of access to physical hospitals highlights the greater need for telehealth in these communities.
However, as we’ve shared above, over a third of rural residents in the United States lack sufficient broadband access, making it more difficult for them to access these lifesaving digital healthcare services.
By extending middle-mile infrastructure into underserved communities, rural residents can benefit from the following:
- Telehealth appointments for regular checkups and specialist visits, allowing rural residents to ask doctors questions, share health concerns, and get recommendations. This saves patients time and money that may otherwise be spent traveling to the nearest healthcare facility for visits that don’t require in-person tests or procedures.
- Remote patient monitoring via wearable devices like smartwatches and glucose meters to monitor vital measurements in real-time. These devices keep doctors informed about a patient’s health outside of a clinical setting, allowing them to improve health outcomes, reduce hospitalizations, and take immediate action.
- Access to critical healthcare data like test results through resources like patient portals, giving patients visibility and empowering them to take an active role in their health.
- Public health information at their fingertips including information about vaccination campaigns and disease prevention creating healthier, more informed individuals and communities.
Connected Rural Businesses Innovate and Reach New Markets
A lack of Internet connectivity doesn’t just impact students and patients – it puts business owners at a disadvantage as well. Businesses in rural areas lacking adequate broadband aren’t able to innovate and expand their reach as those with sufficient Internet do. In fact, a study from Amazon and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that two-thirds of rural businesses are negatively impacted by slow Internet or poor mobile connectivity.
Access to the Internet and cloud services helps level the playing field for rural businesses, giving them the opportunity to take advantage of benefits like:
- Global market reach via eCommerce channels, allowing them to expand their business virtually anywhere, boosting business growth and revenue.
- Increased resilience and business continuity in the face of disaster. Setting up shop online allows businesses to run even in the face of things like adverse weather. Plus, using cloud-based tools for things like inventory and accounting allow businesses to keep track of their resources and finances, have backup, and access them from anywhere.
- Increased innovation thanks to cloud services that enable businesses to leverage things like data analysis, software tools, scalable and cost-effective IT solutions, and more. Research from Penn State found that companies using cloud services are almost 6% more likely to bring new innovations to market than those not using the cloud.
- A larger talent pool to choose from. Thanks to remote work, businesses can hire help from anywhere in the world to complete tasks that don’t require on-site support. Small businesses can hire contractors, consultants, freelancers, and employees from almost anywhere. The Internet eliminates geographical barriers to many crucial business support roles.
- Better business operations and communication. Virtual tools make it easier than ever to project manage, remain connected, manage finances, remove operational inefficiencies, and more.
- Online marketing tools allow businesses to further expand their reach into new markets and to new customers. Using the Internet, companies can advertise their business online to both local and global consumers via display ads, Google search advertising, social media, email marketing, and more.
Zayo is Bridging the Gap With New Middle Mile Routes
Thanks to increased broadband access, rural individuals and communities can access greater opportunities in education, healthcare, and business. These opportunities create a more educated, digitally literate workforce, a healthier population, and new innovations, making society better as a whole. Closing the digital divide benefits all of us.
Here at Zayo, we deeply understand the need to close the digital divide. We are fortunate to have been awarded $92.9 million as part of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Middle Mile Grant Program to assist in this initiative.
As the only national provider to receive this funding, we understand our responsibility to bring middle-mile infrastructure to these communities so Internet Service Providers can bring critical last-mile connectivity to rural customers.
This broadband connectivity will open up new opportunities and level the playing field for rural students, patients, and business owners. Closing the digital divide is no small task, but we are hopeful that this funding will pave the way for new, digitally-enabled opportunities for those that could use them the most.