The Rural Broadband Gap and Texting for Business

a man in front of a tractor sends a text message on his smartphone

If you live in a metropolitan area, you probably take your internet access and phone signal for granted. Sure, it’s annoying to lose connection when you’re deep in a parking garage or standing in that one weird corner of the office.

But it’s usually an easy fix for us city slickers. We move a few steps to the right, hold out our phone like we’re re-enacting the Lion King, or just wait twenty minutes.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy for the millions of rural Americans.

The growing divide between urban and rural communities’ access to communication technologies creates obstacles for economic development and opportunities. The rural broadband gap impacts consumers and businesses.

What is the rural broadband gap?

Internet connection can be spotty, slow, expensive or simply nonexistent in rural areas of the U.S.

Large distances between towns with low population density, topographical and weather interference, internet service provider availability and pricing all factor into poor connectivity rates.

When some people have access to the internet and others don’t, it creates a gap in opportunity, communication and services.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates over 19 million people in the U.S. do not have access to fixed broadband. However, the data from the 2019 Broadband Deployment Report has been disputed by experts after a data-skewing error was found that would raise the number by over two million.

Internet access isn’t a binary yes or no, either. Internet speeds matter, as anyone who’s stared at the buffering circle for ages waiting for their Netflix episode to continue well knows. The FCC’s benchmark speed is 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. That’s pretty slow. In 2018, the average speed for fixed broadband in the U.S. was 96.25 Mbps/32.88 Mbps.

Microsoft recently released data indicating that the number of people who do not use or access the internet at the proposed baseline speed is actually closer to 163 million.

Being unable to reliably connect to the internet means being unable to fully participate in the digital world and reap the benefits of e-commerce, online education, job listings, cloud technology, telemedicine and more.

This creates the digital divide, also known as the rural broadband gap.

Many proposed solutions focus on adding more infrastructure, like fiber optic cables, which can take a great deal of time and money. Meanwhile, rural customers struggle to communicate with businesses and rural businesses struggle to reach customers.

Business texting could help supplement communication in the broadband gap.

How can texting help connect rural customers and businesses?

Texting for Business can offer a way for consumers to communicate with their pharmacists, banks and insurance agents even if they can’t access the internet from fixed broadband or have spotty network coverage.

Text messages may not be as flashy as the newest app or seem very high tech, but they don’t have to be to provide access to businesses. See below why Texting for Business can help improve communication with rural customers:

Text messages don’t rely on fixed broadband

SMS (Short Message Service) and MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) texts aren’t carried on fixed broadband. Instead, these messages are delivered over cellular networks.

This technology is wireless and doesn’t require new or expensive infrastructure.

Mobile devices can also use cell towers to access the internet. When you use a smartphone to stream music, check social media or answer an email without Wi-Fi, you’re using mobile broadband.

Cell towers already cover most of U.S., but network coverage can still be spotty with weak signals or “dead zones” as you move farther away from main cities and highways. Connectivity often relies on the user’s proximity to a tower, obstructions from tall buildings or service plan.

Text messages are a store-and-forward service

When your mobile signal gets weak while talking on the phone, the call will sound garbled or weak. If you enter a dead zone or go out of range, your call will “drop” and cut out completely.

Texts, on the other hand, store and then forward messages. Essentially, if a recipient’s phone is out of range or turned off, the sent text message will be queued and stored, potentially for days, until it can be delivered.

This can provide huge advantages for people in rural areas who may often travel through dead zones and spotty coverage. Instead of missing an important phone call from their insurance company, for example, a rural consumer will hear the chime of their missed text messages as soon as they regain their signal.

Cellphone ownership is high among rural adults

Mobile phone ownership has skyrocketed in the U.S. in the past decade, and rural consumers are no exception. The Pew Research Center found that smartphone ownership among rural adults reached 71% in 2019, surpassing the numbers for home broadband (63%-64%) and desktop or laptop computers (69%).

Add to that the number of “basic” cellphones without internet access, and rural ownership jumps up to 95%. Cellphones are nearly ubiquitous because they’re accessible and mainstream. They offer an easy connection point for rural customers when broadband isn’t a reliable option.

That’s good news for businesses that can communicate with texts. While a basic cellphone won’t be able to access specialized messaging apps or the internet like their smartphone counterparts, both smartphones and cellphones can send and receive text messages. That increases potential customer reach by 24%.

Text messages use less data

Text messages and phone calls are usually part of a carrier’s plan, costing far less—if anything—than the data used to browse the web or post a video onto Instagram.

The average SMS text message is about 190 bytes. It would take over 5,500 SMS messages to use even 1 megabyte of data. MMS messages use more data to deliver the included pictures, audio or video.

Texting is consumer preferred

Consumers don’t pick up the phone as often as they once did, even when they do have full bars. With the rise of robocalls, growing phone anxiety and busy work schedules, consumers want more control over their communication. But they still want fast and personal responses.

Texting for Business can help you deliver on both.

Texting is a high-priority medium. It’s not as disruptive as a phone call and it won’t be buried and forgotten under dozens of emails. And while customers expect quick responses to their texts, they’re more than likely to return the favor with two-way texting. Our research found that 83% of consumers respond to their text messages within a half hour.

By adding Texting for Business to your communication strategy, you can start to connect with customers who may not be able to reach out through calls, emails and apps. Two-way texting encourages conversation and helps businesses personalize their responses to best serve their urban, suburban and rural customers.

Below are some examples of how a business could use texting to ease some customer pain points caused by the rural broadband gap:

Doctors, dentists and pharmacists: appointment reminders

Automated appointment reminders are helpful for customers and 67% of consumers actually want to receive these reminders by text.

They’re more convenient and, perhaps more importantly, easy to respond to should the customer need to cancel or reschedule.

a text message to confirm a doctor's appointment

When medical professionals can be hours away from your home, it’s important to know if your appointment was moved to a different time.

Independent pharmacies can also use text messages to alert customers of a refill that’s ready for pickup, or notify them about payments.

Recruiters and staffing agencies: schedule a call

Recruiters and staffing agencies can reach out to rural job seekers who may not have steady internet access at home to continuously check the status of their submitted application on a job board.

text message sent to schedule a phone call between a recruiter and job applicant

By giving a heads up about wanting to speak over the phone, the recruiter offers the applicant time to find a place with a stronger signal and ensure that the call will connect.

Financial institutions and insurance carriers: payment alerts and picture messaging

Credit unions and insurance agencies can use texting to cut down on phone tag, schedule automated payment alerts to lower delinquencies and follow up on outstanding claims.

Picture messaging through MMS also enables customers to text photos of paystubs or documentation instead of emailing them or needing to stop by in-person.

Texting for Business won’t magically fix the rural broadband gap, but it can help customers and businesses connect without relying on the internet.

If you’re interested in adding texting to your communication strategy to reach rural customers, check out our e-book: The Ultimate Guide to Texting Your Customers for everything you need to know to start Texting for Business.

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