Like so many, Eusebio Cantone has been working from home during the coronavirus pandemic.
Cantone can tell lots of other people are doing the same in the area where he lives outside of Hillsboro, Va., because "download speeds are dropping," he explained. "This pocket of western Loudoun County is not set up for good wireless.
"I did a videoconference, and some people were getting disconnected. I was looking at blueprints and the computer kept freezing," said Cantone, the vice president at Genco Masonry in Bethesda, Md. "This has been a very big strain on the system."
The lack of connectivity has been a hindrance for many in the U.S., since even before the coronavirus crisis. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports that nearly 21.3 million people in the U.S. lack a broadband connection speed of at least 25 megabits per second, the FCC's benchmark for high-speed broadband.
The number of people without high-speed broadband may well be much higher given inaccuracies in mapping data. BroadbandNow, a website that helps consumers find and compare Internet service providers, did its own research in February. Its study suggested the number of Americans without broadband access is 42 million—double the FCC's figure.
BroadbandNow found that the undercount tended to be higher in states with a bigger rural population.
But it's not just workers in rural areas who are affected by the lack of strong or workable Internet connections.
In 2017, Philadelphia ranked the second lowest of the 25 largest U.S. cities in the number of households with Internet access, according to U.S. census data. The national broadband penetration rate by household was 83.5 percent nationally; in Philadelphia, the rate was 71.6 percent.
An estimated 90 percent to 95 percent of Shelter Insurance's 1,750 employees in New Jersey and the Philadelphia area are working remotely because of the threat of the COVID-19 virus, according to Jay MacLellan, the company's director of PR and corporate training.
"Of those working remotely, we have roughly 25 to 30 people that have had issues with their Internet or didn't have Internet at home. We have sourced hot spots for them so that doesn't remain an issue for them," he said.
But company-provided hot spots are not always the answer.
Even if companies provide devices or pay for services, that may not be enough, Cantone said. "If the infrastructure or the service can't handle it, it doesn't matter if carriers don't have updates on their cell towers. Or if there aren't enough towers."
Dipanwita Das, co-founder and CEO of artificial intelligence startup Sorcero, said she often works from home when in her native India. "I use the data on my phone. It's strong enough to power one hot spot." In Mumbai, the company pays employees' data charges.
In the parts of the U.S. where broadband service is poor, employees may be able to use their phone to power laptops, but "a lot of phones don't allow for hot spots," Das said, noting that the service provider for her home in Washington, D.C., "has a poor connection for [her] mobile."
"If [the pandemic] is a long-term problem, I think employers have to become more aware of what service providers are providing. It's going to be more of a burden on employers," she said.
The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law March 27, includes millions of dollars for broadband services for rural and underserved areas.
Meanwhile, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai issued a call asking broadband and telephone service providers to pledge not to terminate service to small-business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to the disruptions caused by the pandemic. He also asked telecommunications companies across the country to "open Wi-Fi hot spots to any American who needs them." The FCC reported that more than 700 companies and trade associations have signed the FCC's Keep Americans Connected pledge.
Stephenie Overman is a freelance writer in Virginia.