The pandemic is often credited not with creating a new normal as much as exacerbating the challenges that existed in the “old normal”, making issues that perhaps were not top of mind leading up to it very important in the moment.
Issues like access to high-speed internet and the very real consequences that exist in its absence.
This does not come as a surprise to Robyn Weber, the new CEO of Nomad Internet, a wireless internet provider that focuses on rural geographies. As a former (and current) customer of the service and resident of an area uncovered by traditional high-speed cabling infrastructure, she is well aware of the difficulties in navigating today’s world without reliable online access.
And even more so now that the pandemic had its time.
The Need for Speed
There is an argument to be made that one of the most impactful outcomes of the pandemic was the laying bare of various societal inequities divided into two camps: Those who had and those who did not. Or, who had to go to work (mostly lower paying jobs in service and production) and risk illness and who could work from home (mostly white collar, information-centric jobs done on computer).
Whose kids would be able to maintain their learning levels during remote schooling (wealthier families who could afford tutors and were likely home to work with their children) and whose children fell behind (those who had to report to work and could not afford childcare, not to mention tutors).
Weber and Nomad Internet know that, in rural areas, those distinctions were perhaps more pronounced. In many areas of the expansive United States, even the privileged white-collar workers were in a pickle. If they didn’t have appropriate internet access, they could not reliably do their jobs. At all, as most offices were closed for at least some of the pandemic.
If one didn’t have reliable internet access, school was not just difficult, but impossible.
“We brought on the residential service right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, so we were kind of ready,” Weber said in an interview. “And then the need for internet access at home grew.”
As that need grew quickly and with urgency, it ran into a technological barrier that perhaps a company like Nomad Internet could rectify.
“A lot of people in rural communities who were commuting to work were then forced to work from home,” Weber said. “And when you live in a rural community, a lot of times, the technology has advanced quite a bit in the last few years, but back in 2020 the only option for most of these rural folks was satellite internet. Not the new low latency stuff, but the more traditional satellite internet like your HughesNet and your ViaSat. And that type of internet is not conducive to doing Zoom meetings, or video calls, or any kind of work from home with web applications. And so that’s where we came in, brought in our solution, which runs on cellular towers, and we were able to get those folks online, many of whom have stuck with us even until today.”
Lack of access to high-speed internet has a multitude of externalities, some readily apparent, others not so much.
A Pew Research Center survey in 2021 found that rural residents were less “online” in general, but also used internet devices, such as smart phones, tablets and others, to a lesser degree.
This isn’t to say that being online provides “the good life” (there are innumerable studies showing how being “very online” can cause issues ranging from addiction to low self-esteem and depression, among other outcomes), but as many of the basics of living become web-centric, it becomes more of an issue if you can’t go online.
The mini-migrations that occurred during the pandemic, those of former urban-dwellers who sought more affordable living conditions in lower-cost rural areas, also pressed Nomad Internet into service.
“The rural landscape is changing quite a bit because folks are able to work from home now,” Weber said. “They were never able to work from home. A lot of folks didn’t return to the office after 2020. They moved out to the country to have more property, better places for their kids to grow up, and things like that. And I have a lot of friends who are realtors and they sell these places and they move in and they realized that they can’t work from home. They don’t have any internet.”
Nomad Internet has been pressing forward in trying to get 5G-type service to those areas, including a new modem specifically designed to handle the data throughput. With the influx of new residents and the increasing need to handle life issues such as education, healthcare and work online, it couldn’t have come at a better time.