Whether for business, interpersonal communication, education, health care, precision agriculture or otherwise, technology and connectivity continue to define and redefine our world. Robust, reliable and efficient access to the internet — and to the content and resources to which it plays host — is key for maintaining a competitive edge and ensuring opportunities to thrive for local economic growth and overall quality of life. Today, however, notable inconsistencies in the distribution of digital capabilities affect businesses and individuals everywhere. As technology continues to evolve rapidly, the digital divide grows larger, wreaking havoc on industries and individuals’ ability to learn, grow and prosper across the United States.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues its onslaught, shifting the way individuals and businesses interact and pushing the world toward a more digital reality, the need for more robust and reliable communications infrastructure has been heightened. The demands on networks have grown, and the requirements for distance learning, remote workforce enablement, telehealth and beyond have all grown exponentially — meaning that those without high-speed internet access are put at a severe disadvantage. As the gap in communications infrastructure broadens between metropolitan and rural or underserved markets, it is clear that the time to bridge this rift is now. The only question that remains is how to build a strategy that can overcome this challenge and keep these locations on track for stable, continued growth — in a way that makes sense for local business.
Understanding the Digital Divide
Since its debut, the internet has continued to evolve, becoming an increasingly central facet of life. The Statista Research Department’s 2020 IoT Connected Devices report forecasts that by 2030, the global number of connected devices will amount to 50 billion. Those devices will be used — and are being used today — to access online banking, distance learning and remote work, to host virtual appointments with doctors, to pay bills, contact emergency services, manage agricultural crops and more. It is difficult to ignore the fundamental importance of connectivity and the key role that access to digital capabilities plays in overall success. Continued digital transformation is accelerating this dependence on technology, making equal, efficient and robust access even more important.
The pandemic heightened the reliance on digital infrastructure because of the implementation of social distancing. This motivated educational institutions to implement remote learning solutions — some for the first time in their histories — while major corporations have extended work-from-home (WFH) policies into the year 2021. These online solutions require trust that individuals can obtain access to the files and perform work tasks over public and private connections. Meanwhile, health care workers, still faced with frontline pandemic responses, are adjusting their practices to support telehealth solutions, diagnosing and treating patients from virtually anywhere. Traditional businesses from restaurants to retail have all pivoted, driving more sales online with no-touch service capabilities, ensuring the safety and welfare of everyone as we keep our economy running.
Unfortunately, while demand for online capabilities has become universal, the natural spread of underlying technology and infrastructure that supports this access has grown more skewed toward central hubs. Although the infrastructural support for metropolitan areas has come naturally because of increasing demand by a more consolidated population, it comes at a cost. That cost is that rural, underserved and lower-income communities increasingly are left behind, despite the fact that their demand is just as important to their lives as it is for those in more central business destinations.
One indication of this systemic issue is that, as of early 2019, Pew Research Center reported that 26 percent of adults living in households earning less than $30,000 a year are “smartphone-dependent” internet users. This means that they own a smartphone but do not have broadband internet at home and, as a result, they employ their smartphone for traditional online tasks. In an era of social distancing and quarantine, when 53 percent of Americans are reporting internet use as essential, being unable to access these online tasks reliably or efficiently represents a critical issue.
With the need for ubiquitous digital infrastructure, the level of latency and performance that is now required by adjacent, rural and underserved markets for streaming, mobile demands and content consumption — a level that on par with major markets — is still going largely unconsidered. To address this disparity, many markets still have their local content and applications backhauled to major market hubs. This negatively affects performance, increases costs and drives end users’ frustrations higher.
Why is the Gap Growing?
The digital divide continues to grow because of a number of factors. To start, large cities and metropolitan areas have high population densities — they’re where the most customers are, where businesses reside and do much of their work and where most infrastructure providers assume the return on investment is the highest. This means that infrastructure providers often see diminished incentive for deploying in these areas and fear they won’t be able to justify the costs for building the necessary foundations. When the initial internet infrastructure was developed, it focused on these core regions to get the most people connected. With the U.S. population becoming increasingly dispersed, these major markets remain the most populated, but the adjacent and rural markets now have populations that rival those of the first internet-connected locations.
Nevertheless, challenges do not arise solely from factors external to the rural market; they also come from the markets themselves. In more remote and underserved areas, it is not uncommon for existing businesses to resist new market entrants. Innovation often looks like disruption, and disruption can cause fear that businesses in the area will not be able to pivot or will be outpaced by new developments. Although understanding the value of enhanced digital capability is not the issue, understanding how that innovation occurs and creating a method that works alongside existing market entities to ease any reservations is key.
In order to continue advancing the digital transformation, traditional transport solutions that rely on major markets must evolve to support a more robust and decentralized IT architecture, meeting the evolving content and application use of a highly distributed user base.
Creating a New Model
With today’s technology clearly requiring a more distributed model to the edge, attention on bridging the digital divide is growing. Solutions are being developed, but this challenge needs more work (and financial resources) to make up for lost time. Furthermore, the approach to addressing these needs in rural and underserved markets cannot be the same approach that has been taken in metropolitan locations — this is a different use case altogether that requires an individualized approach, building the right infrastructure with the right strategy to cultivate long-term growth and success.
To solve content and application latency, efficiency, cost, performance and access challenges, local content and applications need to be kept local. This means that a neutral approach to aggregating networks and driving interconnection at a single strategic location is needed. In metro-adjacent, rural or currently underserved locations especially, access to large data streams must be provisioned in a way that empowers markets through a more widespread distribution model designed to build trust while maintaining critical density for cost and performance efficiency. This model of interconnecting networks to enhance quality and performance is not new — it is just not yet happening at scale in a way that is made for the rural and remote areas where it is needed most.
These new market interconnection points require high levels of flexibility to overcome any deployment challenges — they must be able to be built in a host of different types of locations that suit what is available or what is needed in each market, remaining neutral in every way. They must be designed specifically for local compatibility, remaining free to make use of any real estate type or equipment while enabling any carrier, cloud or content provider to be empowered by reaching the most endpoints through a robust interconnection strategy. At the core of this model is cooperation. Cooperation with and between local entities when building out this infrastructure means the existing businesses and providers are supported, not disrupted, which is key for ensuring full adoption and enduring success in these areas.
Not only will these points keep content and application traffic local (and offer the associated speed, cost reliability and performance benefits), they will create a symbiotic ecosystem for local businesses that goes beyond aggregating existing providers to attract a growing amount of content and applications as the edge point progresses. If cultivated correctly, these interconnection points will only continue to attract more providers and create a host of benefits not only for themselves, but also for the wider digital ecosystem, creating self-sufficient, ongoing growth that will level the digital playing field while creating a more robust foundation for the needs of today and tomorrow.