The Industry

Broadband for Low-Income Housing

In April of this year, Kathryn de Wit of the Pew Charitable Trusts released what I consider to be the definitive article defining the broadband gap in low-income housing. I’ve discussed her paper before, but as we finally approach the start of the BEAD grant process, I wanted to highlight the findings from her report. While BEAD grant funding is supposed to be available to bring broadband to unserved and underserved homes everywhere, I have to wonder how much funding will be provided in most states to tackle this issue – which is mostly found in cities.

I think its universally understood that homes need broadband to take part in modern life. Just in my own life, it seems that month after month and year after year, that more of the functions I do now involve broadband. Just one example, I recently had some doctor visits, and a lot of the process is now online to register prior to the visit and to get my results from lab tests. This was not part of the process for my doctor just a year ago – but seemingly everything we do is migrating online.

Pew interviews with low-income households showed that some of the most important benefits of broadband for low-income homes include reduced isolation and increased social connection, support for aging in place, access to education, health care and wellness, job training, financial services, and the opportunity to apply for and find jobs. Several major studies have documented the positive impact for students who have broadband and computers in the home.

The Pew paper describes the lack of broadband for low-income housing as being the result of several issues. First is that ISPs, in many cases, are not building fiber or other modern infrastructure to subsidized housing. When an ISP builds fiber near a low-income apartment building, it often bypass the building and don’t offer fiber. While ISPs won’t publicly say it, this is due to an expectation of low returns on the investment of building a fiber drop, wiring the units, and providing the electronics.

Another issue is a shift away from community technology centers – places where WiFi broadband and computers are made available to the public. This is a movement that was already underway before the pandemic and which became the norm during COVID shutdowns. This means there must be a bigger emphasis on getting broadband and computers into living units.

But the biggest issue continues to be affordability. Pew research from 2021 showed that 43% of households with incomes under $30,000 did not have a broadband connection – which compares to 8% for homes with incomes over $75,000 per year. 45% of people without home broadband said they can’t afford a monthly broadband subscription, and 37% said they can’t afford a computer. The household income issue is even more acute in public housing, where the average household income in a 2016 study was just over $14,000 per household.

A large survey conducted by the NTIA of homes without broadband showed that the average amount that those living in subsidized households said they could afford was just $10 per month, although over half of homes said they couldn’t afford any amount. A 2021 survey by Everyone On shows that 40% of households with incomes of $50,000 said they can’t afford broadband, while 22% said they could afford to pay as much as $25 per month.

As you might imagine, there are a lot of challenges in getting better broadband to public housing:

  • Broadband subscriptions are not included in the HUD utility allowance. This is a funding mechanism that covers electricity, gas, and water fees in public housing. It’s time to recognize that a broadband subscription is a household need and not a luxury.
  • While BEAD grants theoretically cover bringing broadband to apartment buildings that need it, it’s a challenge to prove the areas are underserved since urban maps often claim ubiquitous broadband coverage from cable companies. The BEAD process is also incredibly unfriendly for filing grants for small areas like a single building due to the complexity of the requirements.
  • ACP funding has allowed many low-income households to get broadband. But unless Congress acts soon, that fund will run dry by next spring. The ACP rules also require individuals to apply for the subsidy. In a low-income housing building, everybody qualifies for ACP by definition, yet there is no mechanism for enrolling a building in ACP. Most other benefits for low-income housing are funded by the building instead of by individual tenants.

I’ve predicted for the last several years that the next big push for broadband connectivity will be in cities. As states start allocating rural grants for BEAD, it will likely become obvious that little has been done to help most cities. I think this is going to be a harder issue to solve than the rural broadband gaps because the big cable companies are going to fight anybody that tries to bring broadband into what they consider as their turf – even where they aren’t serving. But if the goal is to get everybody onto broadband, this is an issue we need to tackle and solve.

The Industry

Working at Home Here to Stay

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report in June that indicates that the percentage of people working at home, which grew rapidly during the pandemic, is still much higher today than before the pandemic.

The U.S. Census and the Bureau gather this data by interviewing thousands of workers and asking how they spent the previous 24 hours. The survey not only gathers information on work habits, but also statistics on time spent on leisure, housework, and other activities.

Here are some of the key statistics from that report:

  • 34% of workers did some or all of their work from home in 2022. That has dropped – during the pandemic, 42% of workers worked at home in 2020 and 38% in 2021. But before the pandemic, the percentage of workers who worked at home was 24% in 2018 and 2019.
  • Working at home seems to be tied to having higher levels of education. 54% of adults over 25 years old with a bachelor’s degree or higher worked at home in 2022 compared to 18% of those with a high school diploma or no degree.
  • Women are more likely to work from home. 41% of women worked from home in 2022 compared to 28% of men.
  • The average person who said they were working from home did so for 5.4 hours per day.

Most labor experts are interpreting the survey results to mean that there has been a permanent shift in the way that people work. In 2022, there were 42% more people working at home than before the pandemic. To put that statistic into perspective, there are roughly 164 million adults in the U.S. workforce. This means that in 2022, almost 56 million people worked at home, up from 39 million before the pandemic. That’s an increase of over 16 million additional people working from home.

It’s possibly a little early to predict where the percentage of those working from home will stabilize, but it seems unlikely that the percentage will ever return to the pre-pandemic levels.

The statistics show a big gap in those working at home by education level. There are three times as many people with a bachelor’s degree or higher working at home than those without. It’s not too hard to conjecture that a lot of those working from home are likely to be working on computers and needing a good broadband connection.

The disparity between the percentage of men and women working at home probably has a lot to do with the daycare crisis in the country. I’ve read numerous articles describing the cost and the difficulty of finding daycare. In those articles, many women talk about working at home as a way to cope with daycare issues.

I’ve seen several other surveys over the last year that have interviewed generation Z and millennial workers, and a large percentage of these generations do not want to work in the classic office environment. I have to think over the next decade that this trend will continue to nudge the percentage of folks who work at home even higher.

My consulting firm conducts a lot of interviews about broadband usage, and we are still finding a lot of homes that don’t have adequate broadband for working at home or for students doing homework. I regularly participate in online discussions with folks working from home with a poor broadband connection who struggle to maintain an online chat session. I have to think that as we bring better broadband to millions of rural locations, the percentage of homes that will include somebody working at home will continue to climb.

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