For some associations, the growing reliance on digital communication could prove a problem for areas where there are gaps in broadband access. It may be worth considering whether your communication options are leaving anyone out.

With a largely remote workforce, associations are adjusting their approach to member engagementproject management, and events. But the great connector that has made all of this possible remains frustratingly inconsistent.

That connector, of course, is internet access, and while most U.S. households have a dedicated internet connection on their oneplus, substantial number do not. And that’s an increasing challenge given that we seem to be in this situation for the long haul.

This is a systemic problem that is gaining notice. A recent story from The Markup cites a 2018 Federal Communications Commission study showing that 14 million people in the U.S. lack internet access altogether, while 25 million lack access to broadband technology. “And that may actually be an undercount,” the site says, citing issues with the methodology the FCC used.

According to a Pew Research Center report, the disparities are linked to geography. In a 2019 survey, it found that at least three-quarters of city dwellers and suburbanites had broadband access in their homes, but just 63 percent of rural Americans did. Rural Americans also lagged behind in rates of tech ownership, including of smartphones and desktop or laptop computers. (Urban dwellers were as likely to own a tablet as rural Americans, at a rate of 49 percent each.) And the problem is even more notable at scale:

Rural adults are also less likely than suburban adults to have multiple devices or services that enable them to go online: About 3 in 10 adults who live in rural communities (31 percent) report that they own a desktop or laptop computer, a smartphone, a home broadband connection and a tablet computer. By contrast, 43 percent of suburban adults own all four of these technologies.

This issue would be important to address in normal times, but during a period when internet access is an essential pipeline for education, communication, and participation in the economy, the digital gap is increasingly problematic. A lack of high-speed internet access could make it harder for students to learn or laid-off workers to file for unemployment benefits—let alone to attend a virtual meeting.

Of course, many wireless and wired broadband providers would struggle to build a viable business in many rural regions, and stopgap solutions such as satellite internet only go so far. And while some individuals might have high-speed access normally, they may not have it currently because it’s stuck back at the office.

“It took this pandemic for people to realize that tens of millions of people don’t have [an] internet connection,” said Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy, in comments to CNN.

The stimulus bill passed by the House last week adds $5.5 billion in funding to increase broadband access in under-served areas. The bill may not make it through the Senate as is, but odds are good that a push for broadband funding will only increase in the coming months.

WHY THIS MATTERS FOR ASSOCIATIONS

While not every membership organization is the same, associations often represent members in both urban and rural areas, and their digital access may vary. Even mobile phone networks have coverage gaps. So how can you make sure you’re not inadvertently leaving out paying members during a time when they need to maintain access to your programs and professional community? Some considerations:

Consider data-lite alternatives. If you are offering digital-only resources,  they need to load fast and be easy to comprehend in situations where internet speeds are slow, such as where images may not be automatically loaded by the user. Following basic responsive design  and website accessibility principles is a great tactic for handling these sorts of problems.

Consider your nondigital options. In an environment like this, it makes sense that digital content is the primary thing that most associations are focused on delivering. But if you have members without guaranteed high-speed internet access, you may need to continue offering print alternatives for the time being—whether a magazine, newsletter, or some other form of member outreach. Also worth considering: picking up a phone and simply reaching out every once in a while.

As great as our many remote-access options are these days, offering alternatives to those who might be missing out is the ultimate form of member service.

ERNIE SMITH

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE »