Illustration by Fanny Luor
Illustration by Fanny Luor

Distributed work

The digital divide threatens the future of distributed work


Published on July 15, 2020

Filed under

Eau Claire, Wisconsin sits three hours’ drive northwest of Madison. The state’s ninth-largest city, it’s a rural area known for its lakes and fly fishing. By any account, it’s an unlikely candidate to play a mythic role in the recent cultural history of American music, and equally unlikely as an emblem of rural revitalization.

In 2006, suffering from a case of mononucleosis, Justin Vernon made the long drive home from North Carolina to recuperate in peace in his father’s hunting cabin near Eau Claire. At a level of isolation that included hunting most of his meals, Vernon used his vast free time to write and record moody songs, though he had no plans of releasing them. They turned out to be the breakout debut of Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago, which would put both Vernon’s career and Eau Claire, Wisconsin, on the map.

Disconnection is key to the Bon Iver genesis story. But most of us aren’t budding rock stars who can go offline for a few months and emerge with a product that reaches millions. 

Jeff Smith, a State Senator representing Eau Claire, is not a rock star either. He’s all too familiar with a different kind of disconnection that characterizes many American cities and towns like Eau Claire, one which has become especially urgent in the new world of remote work: internet speed.

The digital divide

As the pandemic hit, Sen. Smith and his wife pleaded with their daughter, who lives near Madison, to come home. “She flat out said, ‘You just don’t have the bandwidth for me there,’” he says. “And I’ve had to go to town, to the university, to be sure I could be on session with the Senate because we can’t trust it at home. And my wife and I can’t be on it at the same time.“

“For those who are in an urban or suburban area, where the cable company wires it right into their home and they’re accustomed to the speed, they just assume everyone has what they have,” says Smith. “I think that’s been the struggle that we’ve had in a lot of ways, where this is not a priority with a lot of other legislators because they just don’t see it or feel it themselves.”

“For those who are in an urban or suburban area, where the cable company wires it right into their home and they’re accustomed to the speed, they just assume everyone has what they have.”—Jeff Smith

When knowledge workers decamped en masse from cities amidst the pandemic, there was one question on newly-remote workers’ minds: Does this mean I can really work from anywhere? What was at first a work question quickly became a life question. Twitter, Shopify, and other companies declared the era of “office centrality” over, and said their employees can work remotely on a permanent basis. Even companies like Google and Facebook, which are taking a “wait and see” approach, admit that the old normal isn’t returning anytime soon. 

In some ways the pandemic seemed to be the moment many digital workers had been waiting for. In recent years, high profile companies like Yahoo and IBM have been reversing remote work policies over much-debated productivity concerns. Now, engineers pictured themselves coding between fly fishing sessions and kayaking excursions in places like Eau Claire, instead of being stuck at a big urban HQ. More flexibility, more options, and more hiring opportunity for those outside major metros—it sounded great. Unfortunately, much of America simply doesn’t have the internet bandwidth to support this vision. 

Josh Broder, CEO of Tilson—a Maine-based tech company that focuses on rural broadband—says internet service that was fine before COVID is not now. “Marginal” networks that met the needs of users are now struggling under the load, and it’s pumping the breaks on the dreams of newly liberated knowledge workers. 

If work is going to truly go remote, the US will first need to bridge the “digital divide.”

How we got here

The physical layer of cable and wireless technology that delivers internet into homes, businesses, and schools is a patchwork of the old and new. Wired broadband includes DSL, cable, and fiber optic, which transmits data over glass wires via light. Wireless options include aging 4G and LTE networks, as well as the fast but still-scarce 5G.

After The National Broadband Plan, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, broadband consumption increased steadily on an annual basis. This plan paved the way for the streaming content, smartphone, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices many people now use. Ten years later, broadband is due for another update. 

If work is going to truly go remote, the US will first need to bridge the “digital divide.”

In some regions of America, service is limited to slow DSL and cable broadband, much of which are in varying states of decay. Over time, water seeps into and corrodes the coaxial copper cables, and companies aren’t making investments to fix them. "This gets worse every day, not better over time,” says Broder.

“Broadband looks in some ways like a river in terms of volume, size, and width, and then petering out into smaller and smaller tributaries,” says Anton Kapela, co-founder and CTO of EdgeMicro—which deploys modular data centers at fiber aggregation points in underserved markets. “It’s just not fast enough to send the volumes of cool content and applications we have. It’s a capacity question.” 

Kapela says that most existing infrastructure wasn’t designed for current internet usage. In other words, the physical layer was never meant to support e-commerce, streaming content, conducting Zoom video meetings, educating students, or trading commodities in microseconds—all things we now expect to be able to do at home, all at the same time. Today, the demands on that already-taxed capacity are skyrocketing.

According to OpenVault’s Broadband Industry Report for 4Q 2019, average monthly data consumed per household grew by 27% between 2018 and 2019. By the end of Q1, 2020, driven by self-quarantine during March, average broadband consumption jumped 47% from the same period of 2019, from 344 GB of data to 403 GB. OpenVault says COVID-19 accelerated their forecasted broadband consumption trends by almost a year.

“Nearly all the growth in broadband usage we would have expected for 2020 has now been achieved in the first quarter, with much of it concentrated in the last two weeks of the quarter,” the report states. “It’s fair to say that broadband usage at home has spiked 40-60% (above baseline) during COVID, depending on who is reporting it,” says Broder.

In our new work-from-home reality, bandwidth demand is rising across the US. But capacity is only selectively rising to meet it.

“The headline for the carriers has been that their networks have held up really well,” says Broder. “Their usage has been orders of magnitude higher than normal. But, there are places that had barely sufficient broadband before, so a little bit of load pushes it underwater.”

“Personally,” says Broder, “I live in Portland, Maine, a Tier 3 city. I’ve got cable broadband and at around 6:00pm, when I’m still working, it’s prime time and gets really slow because everyone is using it—my internet kind of stinks. This is my situation in a dense neighborhood in a good sized city. Access in these communities is measured in tens of megabytes per second. In areas served by fiber or the very fastest 5G, speeds are measured in hundreds of megabytes per second, or gigabytes per second.”

The opportunity divide

Sen. Smith has another name for this digital divide between urban and rural areas. He calls the broadband gap an “opportunity divide.” 

“Without opportunity, younger folks won’t stick around—they will move to urban areas to start new jobs and families,” says Smith. “Urban communities are able to participate in a global economy and operate at light speed compared to rural communities. The simple explanation is that internet service providers see rural broadband as not profitable due to population sparsity and therefore less appealing for investment.”

“The proportion of American adults with high-speed broadband service at home increased rapidly between 2000 and 2010,” Pew Research Center reported in 2019. “In recent years, however, broadband adoption growth has been much more sporadic. Today, roughly three-quarters of American adults have broadband internet service at home.”

In our new work-from-home reality, bandwidth demand is rising across the US. But capacity is only selectively rising to meet it.

According to the Pew numbers, in 2019, 79% of urban and 74% of suburban households had broadband, while only 63% of rural homes did. But fast internet also tends to break along cultural lines. While 79% of white households had broadband, only 66% of black, and 61% of hispanic households did in comparison. Approximately 37% of Native American children, 19% of black children, and 17% of hispanic children lack home internet access, compared to 12% of Asian and white children in American households. 

This spring, approximately 56 million K-12 students in the United States attended school online. Because of the digital divide, some students made this transition easier than their classmates.

A teacher from southeastern Wisconsin, who requested anonymity, said that several families in her district do not have the type of internet service required for accessing online education services. “That’s where you’re seeing schools have gone to the bus companies for help,” says the teacher. “They are no longer transporting students, but driving around to provide mobile hotspots.”

The road to expansion 

There are many barriers to bridging the digital divide—financial, regulatory, technological, and spatial. Rep. Mike Doyle, a top Democrat on the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee, recently told USA Today it would take tens of billions of dollars to bring broadband to rural and other unserved/underserved areas. “The private sector hasn’t done it because they know they wouldn’t make a profit on it,” he said. 

Then there are the myriad regulatory hoops companies must jump through to lay fiber lines or put up cellular towers. Each state has different regulations that cover issues such as which entities can provide broadband, whether cable can pass through historically or environmentally protected areas, and if certain technologies are favored over others.

To counter this inertia, Sen. Smith authored the “Dig-Once and Mandatory Connection” bill in Wisconsin earlier this year. The bill would give municipalities power to require companies to install empty broadband conduit lines for future fiber optic cable expansion. It would also require broadband companies to install cable in the public service right-of-ways. Although there is a lack of momentum at the federal level, “Dig-Once” policies already exist in 11 US states, including Maine, North Carolina, and California. 

Smith’s constituents express frustration when they see companies run new high-speed cable down a highway, but not into their own homes. “We are hearing about that particularly because of this pandemic,” he says. “People are saying they’re fed up. It was an issue before, but now it feels like life and death.”

Smith has also authored other broadband bills including one that would bring fiber cables to farmers, accountability to broadband expansion, and internet provider map accuracy. 

Across the country, providers use census blocks for their mapping. They only have to offer (not provide) service to one household for the entire census block to be considered serviced with broadband. The good news is that last fall, at a national convention in Denver, the telecoms announced they are moving away from this type of mapping.

In another hopeful sign, Broder says a number of scrappy companies are working to deliver fiber and 5G. Some are private and some public. Utopia, a public cooperative of municipalities in Utah, is building fiber to homes in both suburban and rural areas. Tilson services rural communities with a combination of fiber cables and radio towers, as well as 5G poles for underserved urban areas. Other private sector players include Metronet in the Midwest, GoNetspeed in Connecticut, and Greenlight Networks in upstate New York. 

Broder says the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, passed January 30th, is for 10 years of support. He expects a 6-year build timeline as a milestone—one the FCC is pushing hard to meet. “It’s a reflection of just how much work there is to do,” he says. 

The future of distributed work

Following the success of For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon sunk his roots even deeper into Eau Claire, building a recording studio on a 10-acre compound that has attracted A-list music luminaries like Kendrick Lamar, Arcade Fire, and even Kanye West. Yeezy recorded part of his 2014 album The Life of Pablo there. In 2015, Vernon founded a local music festival called Eaux Claires, which has drawn talent to rival major festivals like Coachella. Pitchfork wrote, "There are few American artists who have invested so much of their time and money to put their backwater hometown on the map.” Bloomberg wrote about the area’s revitalization and titled the article “How Bon Iver saved Eau Claire.”

Internet issues notwithstanding, American workers had already started moving out of tier-one cities in recent years as the cost of living outstripped income gains in places like New York and San Francisco. This rebalancing can be seen in the business explosions of places like Austin and Nashville, and the culinary prominence of Portland, Maine. But more so than world-class food or music festivals, COVID could be the thing that helps level the broadband playing field and makes places like Eau Claire a truly viable option for workers.

“There are a lot of people who live in smaller cities and rural areas, and there is this whole revitalization of cities like Portland on the backs of people able to work anywhere,” says Broder. “There are great restaurants, nice urban centers, and a cultural life, and you can work over the internet. Fast internet is increasingly important for people living in smaller cities, towns, and rural areas to be viable.” 

Broder believes many people will have access to a number of opportunities that didn’t exist before. As workers become more distributed, he also believes cities will shift focus from courting corporate headquarters (like New York City’s Amazon affair) to enhancing the quality of life and place.

Sen. Smith thinks it’s helpful to view broadband connection as “essential.” Without it, workers may have no choice but to remain in urban areas, where they can get the broadband speeds necessary for video conferencing and other data-heavy work tasks. If broadband can be delivered to rural communities, Smith believes wages will rise, leading to better opportunities to make a living and raise a family. He is also convinced rural broadband can benefit farmers, who he describes as some of the “most clever innovators in society.” But currently, farm knowledge and innovation is “locked” in rural areas. 

“Everyone will benefit when everyone is connected—urban or rural dwellers,” says Smith. “Exchanging knowledge is the backbone of technological advancement. Solutions for rural connection will contribute to the advancement of our technology in every corner of our country.”