Without broadband, rural economies could miss post-pandemic recovery

Conventional wisdom has been that large cities have borne the economic brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic and face the longest chances of a full and rapid recovery. And while the future of many American cities may be truly difficult, the pandemic’s toll on rural economies may be even more difficult to overcome in the long run due to inadequate digital infrastructure and broad access. bandaged.

According to According to the FCC, nearly four in ten rural Americans do not have high-speed Internet access, about ten times the rate of urban Americans. And nearly a third of farmers have no internet access at all, according to at the USDA.

High speed internet is no longer a modern luxury. It’s critical infrastructure to participate in the economy of today and tomorrow, and the lack of broadband creates perhaps the biggest opportunity costs faced by Americans living in rural areas. .

Take, for example, the travel rebound. With a majority of Americans now having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, this summer could be the biggest travel rebound in a century, and rural and small town America is uniquely positioned to experience it. reap some of the greatest benefits. new travel trends.

Over the past year, millions of Americans living in cities – feeling locked within their own walls and desperate to escape to safety – have taken to the road to discover or rediscover rural and small towns in their own right. own backyard.

At Airbnb, we saw this trend take hold at the start of the pandemic. In June 2020 alone, according to our data, hosts on Airbnb in rural America made more than $ 200 million on the platform, an increase of more than 25% from what hosts from these regions won in the same month of the previous year. In August 2020, more guests were staying in the Catskills and the Hudson Valley than in New York City. Since the start of the pandemic, the typical rural host has earned almost $ 9,000, more than $ 2,000 more than the 2019 average.

And even as cities begin to reopen and travel slowly returns to urban centers, this rural trend is likely to remain. According to Airbnb Travel & Life Report, in 2015, rural trips represented less than 10% of nights booked worldwide on Airbnb; now in 2021 that is now more than double, with many of those booked nights belonging to families: 42% of nights booked for family travel this summer are in rural destinations, up from 32% in summer 2019 .

And yet, many Americans living in rural communities cannot benefit from these economic changes because they do not have the Internet access necessary to use sharing economy platforms, connect with a growing cohort of customers or ‘potential guests and earning income, especially at a time of unprecedented economic hardship.

We have seen firsthand the value of broadband access at this crucial time, as home sharing meets people’s financial needs. According to our latest survey of our global host community, due to the pandemic, a third of hosts have personally experienced a pay cut or lost working hours in 2020, or lived with someone who did. ; 14% of them or a member of their household lost their job or were made redundant.

The digital divide has a huge opportunity cost for Americans living in rural communities, especially with clear evidence of this toll in the unprecedented return of travel alone today. But these obstacles have impacts far beyond missed opportunities for direct income – they can spill over into the entire local economy. According to a recent report by Oxford economy on the economic impact of the Airbnb community in certain destinations around the world, in the destinations studied, the local spending of Airbnb customers has supported more than 300,000 jobs, including tens of thousands of jobs in sectors such as restaurants and retailers who have been hit hard by the pandemic.

At Airbnb, we’re doing our part to ensure that rural Americans can take advantage of the opportunity created by the rural travel trend. Last month we announced the launch of the Airbnb Entrepreneurship Academy in the United States, a partnership program to make it easier for rural communities to welcome and benefit from the tourist economy.

If one thing is clear about economic recovery in rural America, it is that their challenges will require a holistic approach from the public and private sectors.

There is a clear path for the return of post-pandemic travel to transform the economies of communities across rural America and the livelihoods of the families who live there – we have seen that potential. This change begins with access to the types of infrastructure that these regions have been deprived of for too long.

A strong, bipartite infrastructure deal would bring the country closer to making significant investments in broadband – and Airbnb is urging lawmakers to adopt one. Congress is expected to support the expansion of broadband deployment, including tailored approaches to address the unique challenges facing rural communities. We remain committed to being an accessible and impactful partner for elected officials in this work and look forward to the development of Internet infrastructure solutions that meet the location and needs of every American.

Laphonza Butler is Airbnb’s North American Public Policy Director.

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