Joe Johnson

Over the past few months, we’ve learned many things from the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve learned the importance of social distancing, the importance of telemedicine and, ultimately, the importance of fast and reliable high-speed broadband in long-term care facilities. Fiber internet connections are available, and they will drive your residents’ health outcomes up.

COVID-19 has now infected millions of Americans, and LTC facilities are particularly affected. With social distancing still in place for many residents, the internet is chiefly the way families are coming together around residents. Studies have already shown that video calls have significantly lowered the risk of depression. Social isolation is just as bad for our overall health as obesity and smoking, but isolation and loneliness is particularly deleterious for elderly Americans. It’s incumbent upon LTC facilities to invest in fiber internet connections carrying gig-speed internet, and then to educate residents around its assets.

As we’ve come to rely on telemedicine for nonessential health care visits, the telehealth trend  will continue to grow, and with it,  the need for reliable broadband. The Federal Communications Commission created a $200 million fund (itself funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (HR 748)) to help health care providers improve, expand or start telemedicine services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I see tremendous growth over the next three, six, 12 months” in telemedicine, “but I also believe that connection to fiber is going to be the key — especially in a rural setting,” said one physician.

For LTC facilities in rural America, access to high-speed broadband is essential; however, only 63% of rural Americans have access to broadband internet. While the broadband gap is shrinking (up from 35% in 2007), we still have a ways to go. Windstream is a rural internet service provider that is committed to bringing fast and reliable broadband to rural LTC facilities. Last year, the company made more than 1 million high-speed broadband connections, including more than 100,000 business fiber internet connections with speeds up to 1 gig (gigabits per second).

As I type, the Federal Communications Commission has adopted rules to begin awarding $16 billion to carry new high-speed internet connections to smaller communities. It’s a program called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, and Windstream stands ready. A Pew survey conducted earlier during the pandemic found almost 2 in 3 Americans don’t think high-speed internet should be a public works project, but we’ve seen public investment in private competition accelerates the timeline for fiber internet capable of truly next-generation bandwidth.

For LTC facilities in urban areas with access to high-speed broadband, I encourage administrators and owners to take a look at the technologies available to ensure your residents and employees are using the most advanced tools to stay connected. Out of COVID-19, we’ve seen the rise and necessity of video calls and virtual meetings. Doing so helps us maintain distancing, while also maintaining the essential human social need of personal interaction with friends and family.

It’s time for internet service providers like Windstream and LTC communities to come together to make facilities models for connectivity. The past few months have proved the importance of technology and high-speed broadband. Technology may serve the greatest role connecting our eldest family members to their doctors and the rest of us. In a few short months, it has become an essential part of the medical and emotional care we provide to long-term care residents. As Bill Walsh, vice president of communications at AARP, said earlier this year, we’re not just battling the coronavirus, but fear, anxiety and social isolation in America’s LTC centers.

Joe Johnson is a vice president of product development and management at Windstream, a provider of fiber and broadband internet service primarily in rural communities. Windstream is also an award-winning unified communications, security and managed services firm to mid-market, enterprise and wholesale customers throughout the U.S.