You’re conducting a Zoom meeting at home with a potential employer. Everything goes well until — buffering.
The jerking and jittering of video and audio were scourges in the early days of the internet. In today’s world, they can be devastating. And that’s assuming a family’s home has internet access.
After years of growth, the internet is no longer an amusing diversion. According to Robert Gilbert of Fiber Homes, a fiber internet search service firm, it is as much a utility as water, gas and electricity.
Acknowledgment of internet service as a utility was coming, but the COVID-19 pandemic shifted it into higher gear, he said. Suddenly, people were having to do everything from being removed from the workplace to having groceries delivered.
Now more and more employees have shifted to part-time remote work. Gilbert recalled reading a study that said up to 25 million people will have remote jobs by 2025.
Other services that call for reliable and fast internet speeds are streaming, telemedicine, digital learning, precision agriculture and professional certifications.
It’s not just for email anymore, said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of The Rural Broadband Association.
How it developedBig demand exists for internet service, said Johanna Bishop, president of the Greenwood Association of Realtors, which has worked with Fiber Homes to increase availability of information on internet access. Anytime she is helping clients, reliable internet service is what they want when looking for house. A lot of people are working from home, so they need it.
Bishop said she has been working for four years in realty and internet access has been a concern for just about every client she has worked with. When there is no good internet access, people have passed on a house.
“Now that we’re going through age of COVID, it really has helped us to realize that it is something that we need,” she said.
Gilbert and Bloomfield shared stories of poor internet access. Gilbert recalled a person buying a $1 million property on Lake Greenwood, only to discover that the house had poor service. Bloomfield mentioned a story of a person who purchased a property that had service akin to dial up. When the owners inquired about how to receive faster and reliable internet service, a company official said they would extend service for $30,000.
The pandemic and telemedicine prompted the growth of remote service. Many people were afraid to go to doctors because of COVID-19, Bloomfield said. Demand for telemedicine during pandemic went up 40% over networks that her firm monitors. It was a big jump. The numbers are settling down now.
Giving the usefulness of telemedicine, people have asked why should they go to the doctor’s office when they know they have strep throat, she said.
Officials with the broadband association see two sections in the US: one served by community-based services, and another served by larger companies, Bloomfield said.
Big companies will put money in Charleston instead of a rural community. It’s an interesting dichotomy, she said. The association represents about 850 community-based providers. Many larger companies decline to serve smaller markets.
The lack of larger companies in smaller towns is why hundreds of community-based providers came in to fill the void, Bloomfield said.
The result is more diversity in providers, such as WCTEL in Abbeville, Bishop said. Gilbert echoed Bishop’s sentiments and lauded the work done by WCTEL and other companies such as Piedmont Rural Telephone Cooperative in Laurens County. In addition to fiber, providers also offer service through satellite, cable and DSL.
What is good service?Defining good internet service can be tricky.
Everybody wants as fast as possible, Bishop said. Most people are streaming now and if you’re working from home, you want to make sure the integrity of communications is good.
Good access is a matter of debate because programs have different standards and speeds, Bloomfield said.
Jessica Rosenworcel, FCC chairperson, recently said the nation needs to aim for a baseline speed of 100/20 (100 megabytes per second download speed and 20 megabytes per second upload speed).
There is a recognition that more bandwidth is needed, Bloomfield said. If a person in a kitchen and two other people in house are using the internet for work, that property will need faster capacity and speeds.
The FCC indicates a 100 MB download speed should be fast enough for a family of four to videoconference, stream videos and access a VPN — virtual private network — for work.
More use can result in a demand for more speed. From a consumer standpoint gaming and streaming are the most bandwidth-heavy activities, said Shannon Sears, director of commercial operations with WCTEL. Many people stream from YouTube and use various devices.
For a normal home, the number of devices requiring internet access has increased from one or two devices to households that have up to 30-40 devices that connect to the internet, he said. Examples are cameras, thermostats, refrigerators, TVs, iPads and cellphones, he said. The list goes on.
Demand for higher speeds and more bandwidth will increase, Sears said. People could see speeds of more than a gigabyte, possibly up to 5 gigs.
Another consideration is symmetrical service which features the same upload and downloads speeds, he said. WCFiber offers 250/250 MB packages and all the way up to 1/1 gig packages.
One limiting factor, however, is the technology on either side between the sender and recipient. Sears said that is not a big issue as technology continues to improve.
Another limiting factor is cost. Sears said up to $60,000 is needed to lay one mile of fiber. When WCTEL extended service into Greenwood County, the staff laid down nearly 710 cable miles of fiber.
If you don’t have good access?Not all areas have access to the internet. A map from the South Carolina Office of Regulatory Services shows a broad swatch of the southern portion of Greenwood County has little broadband access. The map does not, however, include satellite and mobile broadband services.
During the pandemic, Bishop, who worked with the Greenwood County School District 50 board, recalled officials scrambling to provide hotspots to assure that students studying remotely could access online classes and instruction.
Recalling the sale of the Lake Greenwood property, Gilbert said the satellite internet system could only provide 25 MB of service. That means someone spent more than $1 million for a home where they will have trouble streaming to two televisions at once.
FCC officials are still trying to determine how many Americans don’t have connectivity, Bloomfield said. To date, maps have been poor, so it’s hard to gauge. Studies range from 17-30 million households nationwide that lack access. It’s hard to narrow down more than that.
Every state in the nation has created a state broadband office, she said. Community, regional, state leaders are talking about doing their own mapping. She lauded Rep. Jim Clyburn for his efforts to make funds available for programs to determine and set up internet access.
The association is seeing an unprecedented amount of federal funding going to support networks.
“We are at a moment in time when there is a true spotlight on American economy for people to be connected to the internet,” Bloomfield said. “I think we’re going to see a real grassroots push.”
Bishop touted grassroots action by residents by contacting internet service providers and asking about access. She did the same thing and encouraged neighbors to push for growth in their neighborhoods.
Another option is seeking information on accessibility. She acknowledged Fiber Homes’ work on mapping sites to determine online access. It’s a tool for Realtors to use to show properties.
Along with determining whether access is available, Bishop said the maps can tell readers what speeds are available.
Fiber Homes started the service in January, Gilbert said. It has certificated more than 2 million addresses from more than 100 providers across the country. The plan is to have 5 million addresses certified and integrated into more than 200 MLS (multiple listing services) across country by the end of the year.
Good access depends on personal choice, he said. It’s probably not up to number of bedrooms or bathrooms, but is probably on par with other utilities, he said.
The major thing is to make sure online resources are available. People can ask real estate agents to help, but always check yourself, Gilbert said. The more people who check on internet access, the better. People don’t want to buy a house and not have the service they want.
It’s better to ask and find out before, Bishop said.
Research is important, Bloomfield agreed. During the pandemic, she recalled trying to talk with officials with the National Association of Realtors about ways to identify internet access in properties. Some people couldn’t connect the dots.
Now, sites such as Zillow are starting to recognize the importance of online access. Sharing fiber home service information is gold in Realtors’ pocket, but it’s another thing to sell a home on, she said.
“The future is bright for rural America and I think broadband really can be the driver behind a rural renaissance,” she said. “It’s really exciting to see where we will be five, 10 years from now.”