Even before the pandemic hit in 2020, remote work was on the rise.
Freelancer marketplace Upwork estimates 36.2 million Americans — 22 percent of the U.S. workforce — will be working remotely by 2025, representing an 87 percent increase from the number of remote workers before COVID-19’s arrival.
Despite that trend, affordable and reliable internet is still a challenge for many urban and rural communities in the United States. The Federal Communications Commission reports 21.3 million Americans lack access to broadband internet — although BroadbandNow Research estimates it's closer to 42.8 million unconnected people.
While the digital divide is often thought of as a rural/urban split, Census Bureau data indicate that about three times as many households in urban areas lack internet as in rural areas.
America’s internet issues not only affect remote work but also stifle digital entrepreneurs and the creator economy’s growth.
Remote work: Freedom and flexibility is a commonly shared value among indie hackers’ entrepreneurial ambitions. What’s more, the ability to move freely while still making a living is an important factor in the future of the creator economy.
To keep the indie dream alive, indie hacker @levelsio placed the promotion of the freedom of global movement enabled by remote work at the core of his mission.
Yet as the pandemic pushed more people to become remote workers, poor internet connectivity has affected productivity. More than a third of remote workers report that a weak or nonexistent internet connection prevented them from getting their work done during the coronavirus, according to WhistleOut, an online cost comparison website.
Subpar internet has a two-fold effect on digital nomads. It not only makes it harder to get their work done but it also makes large enterprises less confident in hiring them. While service providers and the advent of 5G could improve internet performance, large employers may see similar productivity statistics and cringe at the idea of expanding remote work.
Bigger, more diverse market: Thanks to internet access challenges and cost barriers, there are tens of millions of potential consumers that the digital economy cannot reach. At least not yet, anyway.
The digital divide spans all geographics and demographics but disproportionality impacts minority and low-income communities. The states with the largest unconnected populations are Texas with 4.17 million people, California (2.35 million), Oklahoma (1.66 million), Florida (1.6 million) and Michigan (1.59 million).
To help enable access to the internet, the FCC voted in February to provide up to $50 per month toward broadband internet for low-income households. The program — and other organizations bridging the digital divide like EveryoneOn and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance — should help to usher in a larger, more diverse market of internet consumers.
Stronger economy: With more digital consumers comes more opportunities for indie hackers. Consider for a moment the impact of the digital divide on the broader economy:
The U.S. loses about $2.16 of potential economic activity every day that a person is not connected to the internet, according to a Deloitte analysis. That translates to about $130 million in lost opportunity every day.
Students are about 7 percent more likely to earn a high school diploma with an internet connection and will earn $2 million more over their lifetimes when compared to those that lack access.
An unemployed person with at-home internet access will on average find work seven weeks faster than one who does not and will earn more than $5,000 in additional income annually, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
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Rare bipartisan agreement: Improving the United States’ broadband has broad bipartisan support. States across the country are taking steps to improve internet access to rural and low-income communities, including Nebraska, Ohio, Texas, Michigan and West Virginia.
The COVID relief bill passed in December provided $7 billion for broadband programs, and the House Energy & Commerce Committee advanced a bill to provide $7.6 billion for internet improvements for students and teachers.
Better FCC data: In August, the FCC announced it'd improve the accuracy of its research and mapping of broadband access. The new rules require providers to submit geospatial maps of where they provide service, which will give regulators a better sense of the digital divide and where to allocate resources.
Starlink to IPO: One of SpaceX’s most profitable subsidiaries, satellite internet provider Starlink is planning an IPO once the company better can predict its cash flow.
Starlink — which makes up about 25 percent of all active satellites — has launched over 1,000 satellites and plans to deploy 12,000 in total, offering high-speed internet to anywhere on earth. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk believes that Starlink could rake in more than $30 billion per year. The service already has 10,000 users paying $100/month for download speeds of 100 Mbps and upload speeds of 20 Mbps.
Starlink and other innovative internet providers will likely lead to more digital nomads and open up more opportunities for indie hackers.
Out of necessity, the pandemic has introduced many Americans to remote work. And it seems most of them have enjoyed it enough to consider career changes.
About 58 percent of non-freelancers who are new to remote work due to the pandemic are now considering freelancing in the future, according to Upwork. Those same non-freelancers say they’re considering freelancing because it has made them more productive, prefer it to a traditional office, and can earn extra income. Simultaneously, the share of independent professionals who earn a living freelancing full time increased to 36 percent — an 8 percent increase since 2019.