Reliable broadband internet access could offer the same kind of community-wide health boost in the United States that safe drinking water did a century ago.
As we work to improve community health — the collective level of overall health of a group of people — we look at what common factors affect their health. In many places, one of those factors is a lack of broadband access (defined as wired or cellular internet service such as cable, DSL, fiber optic or 5G).
How Internet Access Improves Health
Fast, reliable internet improves health by creating access to health technologies and to opportunities that support health-related social needs.
Telehealth, wearables, remote monitoring, assistive technology, and other health information technologies are becoming commonplace. They offer convenience, consistency, and accommodations that can help improve people’s healthcare.
When healthcare is made available in nearly any place and time, it helps people who have difficulty getting to a clinic because of distance, transportation, or scheduling. With information at their fingertips, people can more effectively manage their health conditions. When people have access to assistive technology, they can fully participate in their healthcare and maintain independence, both of which improve overall health. These, and many other benefits of health technology, rely on broadband connections.
The internet is also a gateway to addressing many health-related social needs. It provides access to online education or remote employment. This access is critical for people with disabilities, people who live in rural areas, older adults, parents and many others. It can foster social connections through online communities or support groups, which especially helps people who experience social anxieties or have transportation barriers that prevent participation in social activities.
Looking more widely, broadband improves community health through economic growth, higher incomes, and lower unemployment.
An Inequitable Infrastructure
Broadband is one of the most essential elements in the U.S. infrastructure, but inequitable access excludes millions of people from many opportunities to improve their health and meet their health-related social needs.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 13% of U.S. households have no broadband subscription. Other studies have estimated the number of unconnected households to be higher than that. The figure rises to 21% in the most segregated urban counties and 25% in rural counties.
Income correlates more closely with broadband connectivity than geography does. Nationwide, only 57% of households making less than $30,000 have connections. While many counties have 94%-97% of households connected, counties with lower average income often have lower connection rates. The lowest rate of broadband adoption, at 33% of households, is found in one of the lowest income counties in the nation.
In addition to geography and income, people are also less likely to have broadband at home if they have no college education, are over 65 years old, are Hispanic, or are Black.
Barriers to broadband adoption include high costs, inadequate digital skills to use it, and lack of availability in the area.
Taking Action to Expand Broadband Adoption
Nonprofit, industry, and government organizations are working to get more people in their communities connected:
- In San Antonio, more than 140 partner organizations have formed a shared community vision called San Antonio 2020. One of the goals is to have 100% internet connection in the city by 2030. A public-private-community partnership called SA Digital Connects launched a plan in 2020 toward this goal.
- In Cleveland, nonprofit DigitalC has created a community-based broadband network. Eligible residents pay less than $20 a month – compared with national averages of $45 to $70. DigitalC also helps people learn how to send email, apply for a job, or engage in telehealth.
- Congress recently created the Affordable Connectivity Program, a $14 billion investment in broadband affordability. The program will provide a discount of up to $30 per month toward internet service and $100 toward the purchase of a computer or tablet for eligible households.
Understanding that affordable high-speed internet is as essential as clean running water and taking steps to expand its use will help improve the health and well-being of individuals and communities.