Delaware County has launched an online survey to identify residential and commercial areas that don’t have reliable access to broadband internet, don’t have the adequate infrastructure, and/or do not meet the minimum, FCC-suggested speed.
The survey, which closes on Jan. 14, can’t be taken using cellular connections, only wired and WiFi connections. So non-responses from areas without broadband internet connection are just as important to the project as responses from places with complete or limited access.
“We are using community contacts such as schools and faith-based organizations to reach families. The Commerce Center is reaching out to businesses. Our libraries are also sharing and have paper copies,” a county spokesperson said.
According to the county, 14% of Pennsylvania households don’t have internet subscriptions and about 3% aren’t even in areas where that’s possible because the broadband infrastructure is completely lacking.
“Access is not equal, even though when you look at … the FCC maps and you look at a lot of other maps that purport to show where there’s broadband access, Delaware County, it looks like it’s entirely covered, but we know we’re not,” said County Council member Christine Reuther.
In places with limited access, such as the southeastern part of the county, affordability is the main issue, Reuther said, noting that she thinks rural areas have an easier time identifying gaps in coverage.
“What’s less easy to identify is the pockets where people have access when you’re in a more urbanized community, because there’s definitely blocks — there’s entire sections of Chester, for example, the city of Chester — that don’t have broadband access,” Reuther said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for such a survey, since in some cases at-home learning and work-from-home setups were disrupted by lack of internet access. From having virtual job interviews to scheduling telemedicine appointments, people have become increasingly reliant on the internet for everyday services.
And in 2021, Reuther said, broadband internet access is becoming a “needed utility” similar to water and heat.
“If you’re going to live productively in our community here in Delaware County, there are so many things that it’s hard to access if you don’t have a decent stable connection to the internet,” Reuther said.
In August 2020, researchers published a paper in the American Journal of Public Health saying that broadband internet access should be recognized as a social determinant of health, and that disparities in access should be treated as a public health issue.
Their reasoning is that the lack of internet access influences all six of the American Medical Association’s health domains: health care system, food, education, economic stability, community and social context, and neighborhood and physical environment.
Natalie Benda, a health services researcher in the Department of Population Health Sciences at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, was a part of the team that published the paper.
“Our argument, and the main point, is that broadband internet access is necessary in order to gain these resources. And it is critical to have good health outcomes. Therefore, as researchers, we were advocating that broadband should be provided as a safety net service to those in need, just like medical or food assistance,” Benda said.
Benda offered an example using childbirth to illustrate how much proper internet access can affect health outcomes.
“After they leave the hospital, they typically will not see a physician again for six weeks, which is a really long time,” Benda said. “One thing that I know that some hospitals have started doing is they do a video visit at two weeks, just to check in on the mom and baby and see how things are going. If someone doesn’t have access to a good internet connection, that’s something that they’re not going to be able to have, and there’s so much that can happen in those four weeks.”
The researchers said that back in 2017, the American Medical Informatics Association asked the Federal Communications Commission to consider broadband internet access a social determinant of health — and that three years later, the pandemic proved it to be correct.
And though COVID relief grants have begun to help fill the gap, the researchers questioned whether the focus would remain when the money dried up.
Benda said that sufficient internet speed as well as having the proper devices for that speed need to be prioritized — cellphone-dependent internet is not enough. She added that internet speed needs to be commensurate with household size. And on top of that, for new broadband internet users, training is integral, Benda said.
Delco officials hope that the information from their own study, among others, will be used by the county to seek and advocate for federal funding under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress and to improve internet access and fix the digital divide in the county.