Broadband 2020: how the pandemic changed usage and priorities

A new report called “Broadband 2020” by Recon Analytics shows that over 40% of employees in the United States are able to telecommute. The Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics defines the professional workforce as all workers in the “management, professional, and related occupations” colloquially known as white collar workers, which make up 41.2% of all jobs in America. This means that basically every white collar worker is able to telecommute. This highlights the dramatic change that the American workplace has undergone during the pandemic.

The pandemic also has the potential to halt or even reverse the decades-long migration of Americans from rural to urban settings. A slight majority (50.9%) of Americans that can telecommute are contemplating moving to a smaller city or town as the pandemic has prompted many Americans to reevaluate their priorities and living conditions.

What is surprising is that even 31% of Americans that cannot telecommute are considering moving to a smaller city or town. It shows that the luster of metropolitan areas has been waning.

But not all new places are equal, so we asked what factors would stop people from moving to a new place. The results were equal parts predictable and surprising:

More than a third of Americans do not have any reasons that would prevent them from moving to a different place. Where it gets interesting is the reasons why people would not move. The number one reason for not moving to a different town or village is a pay cut – 31.6% of respondents. Companies like Facebook have announced that employees who work from home from lower-cost areas – and everything is lower cost than Silicon Valley – would receive a pay cut. A move that ties compensation to location rather than contribution would prevent a significant number of employees from moving away from Silicon Valley, which already is experiencing a severe housing shortage and overloaded roads. Facebook’s reasoning also allows a glimpse at its compensation philosophy, which seems to focus more on competitive factors than what is good for the community or the employee. Almost as many, 31%, would not move to a town or village without broadband, which is just ahead of access of quality health care with 30.1% – and that in the midst of a pandemic. One has to recognize the magnitude of this finding: Availability of broadband, access to quality healthcare, and a pay cut are equally important in the mind of Americans during a pandemic and recession.

At 36.3%, the 45-54 age segment considers the lack of broadband to be the most significant barrier to moving, followed by the 25-34 age segment with 35.8%. More than a quarter of seniors (26.1%) will not move to a new location if broadband isn’t readily available.

Broadband is even more important than politics. While 22.5% of Americans would not move to an area with what they consider an incompatible political climate, which is significantly less than the importance of broadband. The  45 to 56 age segment is most focused on  politics with over 30.9% citing an unwillingness to move due to an incompatible political climate. The next most polarized age segment is those over the age of 65, where 22.1% mention an incompatible political climate prevents them from moving.

The lack of a nearby airport or a buzzing nightlife was the least important in people’s minds. Only 13.7% of respondents thought that not having an airport within a 50-mile radius would prevent them from moving there. A buzzing nightlife or restaurant scene is even less on people’s minds. Only 9.6% of 18 to 24-year-olds find it an obstacle to move, whereas 13.1% of the 25 to 34 age segment needs a buzzing nightlife and restaurant scene.

We asked people what they considered broadband. The median American considers 50 Mbit/s download and 5 Mbit/s upload as broadband. The people’s expectations are leading the FCC’s definition of broadband which currently sits at 25 Mbit/s download and 3 Mbit/s upload.

The reason for this becomes apparent when we look at the use cases. In our survey we looked at several use cases, but the prevalence of video conferencing has driven bandwidth requirements upwards, especially on the upload side. A HD video stream requires a minimum of 5 Mbit/s upload and download per stream. With more than 25% of Americans now frequently using video conferencing for work and another 21% using sometimes for work the bar has effectively been raised.

While the lack of widely available broadband is a significant hurdle for cities and towns to attract new residents, it is almost outright disqualifying for housing options: 77.5% of respondents would not move to a place, like a house or apartment, that does not have broadband. This makes the availability of broadband one of the key selection criteria when choosing a new residence. When almost half of the population has to be sometimes or frequently on video conferencing, having broadband becomes a job requirement. The pandemic, for the good and bad, has made our homes places of work with the IT and connectivity needs that were traditionally reserved for places of work. These are just some of the highlights of the new Recon Analytics Report “Broadband 2020.”

The results of the report are reinforcing the data from FCC’s 2020 Broadband Deployment Report which represents the most recent government data on the topic and the progress the industry has made from 2014 to 2018.

As of 2018, 94.4% of the Americans have access to broadband as the FCC defines it, 25 Mbits download, 3 Mbits upload (25/3). In urban areas, it is even 98.5%, but as we look towards rural areas and tribal lands, the availability is significantly less. In rural areas 77.7% of Americans and in tribal lands, 72.3% of Americans have access to 25/3 broadband. In higher tiers, access in urban areas drops only slightly, but much more significantly in rural areas and in tribal lands. At the 250/25 Mbps tier, 94% of Americans in urban areas have access, a drop of 4.5% from the 25/3 level. In rural areas,  51.6% of American have access to 250/25, which is 26.1% less than 25/3. In tribal lands, 45.5% have access to 250/25 which is 26.8% less than 25/3.

The numbers make it clear that there is still more than enough to do in urban, rural and tribal areas to provide connectivity for essential tasks. As it looks increasingly unlikely that children in every school district will be able to go back to school, we need to ensure that every child in the United States can access the internet to be able to participate in school and classroom work. If only one child cannot participate, the progress and grades for the entire class are not counted. While fixed broadband deployment is a time-consuming endeavor, mobile broadband can and should close the homework gap. T-Mobile has announced that as part of its merger commitments it will deliver mobile broadband to 10 million households we have only a few weeks to turn this promise into a meaningful difference as the new school year starts. The other mobile operators, in conjunction with the FCC and federal funding, should seize the opportunity and close the homework gap as quickly as possible.

In order to recover as quickly as possible from the current economic slump, we should put money where it has the biggest impact. Different technologies are able to achieve the same goals but have strengths and weakness in different areas. This means that any funding has to be technologically agnostic and look at the performance characteristics. The United States has wisely always used performance characteristics such as download and upload speed as well as latency as its selection criteria rather than being tied to a technology regardless if it is fiber, hybrid fiber coax, VDSL, satellite or whatever generation of wireless standards.

If you would like to buy the underlying report, please give us a call at 617.823.3363