Second study links broadband access to lower Covid death rates

A new study from Tufts University’s Digital Planet initiative found a correlation between broadband and Covid-19 death rates, highlighting a particular link between greater access and better outcomes in urban areas. The report comes after researchers at the University of Chicago released a paper earlier this year that came to a similar conclusion.

The study from Tufts included data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Department of Labor, Department of Commerce, Broadband Now and a Covid-19 map put out by USAFacts, among other sources. Researchers found that even after controlling for a range of factors including age, gender, healthcare access, poverty and racism, a 1% increase in broadband access reduced Covid death rates by approximately 19 people per 100,000 in the U.S. Put another way, a 1% increase in broadband access led to a 0.1% decline in Covid mortality overall.

The impact of broadband was especially pronounced in metro areas, with access associated with a decrease in mortality of 36 people per 100,000. Or, to offer a comparison with the percentage figure above, a 1% increase in broadband access led to a 0.24% decline in Covid death rates.

Notably, the study only covered the months of January 2020 to February 2021, before vaccines were made widely available. The Tufts researchers explained this means their study did not address the impact of internet availability on vaccine access.

“For example, in Jan 2021, Shelby County, Tennessee, made weekly vaccine slots available on a Friday for eligible residents to make appointments online without considering that those that did not have internet access could only call in on Monday. By late Saturday night, all the 10,800 appointment slots were taken, denying those without internet early access to the vaccine,” they wrote.

In March, researchers from the University of Chicago similarly determined that places with less internet access had higher Covid death rates. As in the Tufts report, they found this was particularly true in urban areas.

“Internet access was a significant factor in all communities,” the authors of the University of Chicago study wrote. “We believe this finding suggests that more awareness is needed about the essential asset of technological access to reliable information, remote work, schooling opportunities, resource purchasing, and/or social community. Populations with limited internet access remain understudied and are often excluded in pandemic research.”

The U.S. government has set a goal of providing “Internet for All” using $65 billion in funding Congress recently allocated for that purpose. Officials recently said funding will primarily be used to connect currently unserved locations, though some money may also be used to enhance service in areas deemed underserved with download speeds slower than 100 Mbps. However, the bulk of that funding is not expected to flow until 2023.