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For successful social distancing, internet speed matters

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Individual and institutional responses to orders to stay at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have laid bare the stark inequality divide in the United States and around the world.

While knowledge workers often have the ability to work from home, service workers face layoffs or furloughs – or they face an increased risk of exposure as they continue to stock grocery store shelves, deliver packages, or provide care to the sick.

This divide is often framed in the context of income inequality, but a working paper co-authored by MIT Sloan professor concludes that access to high-speed internet plays a critical role as well. Tucker and her co-author, Occidental College economics professor Lesley Chiou, PhD ’05, found that the combination of high income and high-speed internet – and not one or the other – was the biggest driver in a person’s propensity to self-isolate.

“You can only understand income inequality in the context of how income and the internet interact,” said Tucker, who is a professor of management science and the chair of the MIT Sloan PhD program. “What we find is that wealthy people are only more successful in self-isolation if they have access to high-speed internet at home.”

High-speed internet keeps people at home

Tucker and Chiou pulled information from several sources to conduct their analysis.

First, they received mobile phone location data from Safegraph, a service that collects point-of-interest data from smartphone users who consent to sharing their location with mobile applications. This data, collected from about 20 million mobile devices, allowed researchers to see when people (and their phones) left home and stayed home.

Next, the researchers aggregated this phone location data at a census tract level and combined this with data from the 2018 American Community Survey. This data set from the U.S. Census Bureau allowed Tucker and Chiou to estimate yearly household income, access to high-speed internet, and demographic characteristics across census tracts.

Then, they looked at when (if at all) states had issued orders for all non-essential businesses to close. Finally, they collected data on the spread of COVID-19 cases at a county level from the New York Times data repository.

“The kind of data that we have access to is uniquely useful for this purpose. We’re able to match up the data on whether a mobile device left the home with the data about what kinds of households have access to the internet and are in high-income areas,” Tucker said. “This has taken on importance because it’s the people who are able to stay at home who can protect themselves the best.”

Comparing the movement of mobile devices in February and March, the researchers discovered that people in high-income areas were more likely to leave the house before the pandemic hit and more likely to stay home afterward. The presence of high-speed internet in a region increased the ability of all residents, regardless of income, to better self-isolate. But the combination of high-income and high-speed internet led to a further positive effect.

Rekindling an old debate and influencing a new one

Tucker said the conclusions resuscitate the debate about access to high-speed internet – and how it impacts both public health and the economy. 

That debate about broadband seemingly stopped about 10 years ago, given the ensuing proliferation of smartphones and tablets that can connect to the cellular network. After all, according to the 2018 American Community Survey, more than 70% of the U.S. population has a smartphone. (The researchers acknowledge in the paper that their study of movement is limited to the people who have smartphones and have opted in to tracking – previous research by Tucker shows older people are less likely to share information.)

However, orders to remain at home highlight the important role of high-speed internet. Most cell phone plans place limits on monthly data use and on tethering phones and using them as a modem. Plus, there are constraints to working, learning, or even being entertained on a mobile phone or tablet as compared to a PC or laptop. It’s just plain easier to stay put if you have a good internet connection.

“There’s been optimism about cellular data replacing broadband, but what we show is that, as of 2020 that doesn’t seem to be the case,” Tucker said. “Hard-wired, non-metered, fast internet does seem to be having a profound effect.”

From a public health perspective, this shows that officials need to consider internet access when considering the role of inequality in a region’s ability to self-isolate, Tucker said.

At a broader level, she added, the paper’s conclusion should be considered in the debate about reopening the U.S. economy.

“There are two things I don’t hear in that debate – the extent to which digital technology can act as a good replacement for exposing people to unnecessary risk, and how to correct the unequal effects that have been felt during the shutdown,” Tucker said. “That’s what we’re trying to remind people about.”

Read the research

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