Part 3: What Lies Ahead For 2021 And Beyond

February 16, 2021By Stephen V. Smith

In the previous articles in our series of predictions, we looked at what may lie ahead for the broadband and energy sectors, along with rural development, the arts and the virus. This week we conclude our series with the following predictions:

6) Lasting Shift to Remote Lifestyles

Remote everything will continue to increase as the practice becomes ingrained in how we work and live, and broadband connectivity becomes more ubiquitous. There is no going back.

In terms of employment, 2020 will be remembered as “The Year We Went Home.” Many studies show that remote work was becoming more common as we headed into the pandemic, but it was still a small percentage of the overall workforce. Now we’re seeing studies that say as many as 30% of the jobs sent home will not return to the office full time.

While some jobs cannot be done remotely, employers discovered a surprising number of tasks can be handled quite effectively via a distributed workforce model — and  efficiency and productivity increased because of it.

I can personally testify to this. The company my wife and I founded in 1996 (which we sold last year and continue to work for) began to experiment with remote workers in 2011. Our first remote hire was staff member number seven. When the pandemic lockdowns began, we had a staff of 30 scattered across five states, with almost everyone working remotely. The pandemic didn’t interrupt our workflow (beyond the mental stress of the pandemic, of course).

Schools in rural communities were also experimenting with distance learning well before the pandemic, bringing instructors for advanced courses into their classrooms via smart boards. Likewise, schools were increasingly adopting technology to provide students with online access to curriculum resources and to allow them to upload homework directly to their teachers. This trend won’t reverse. The fallout of sending students home en masse will be studied and discussed for years (impact on social skills, an extrapolated “summer slide,” incidents of abuse and neglect, the effect on household income due to work interruptions of a parent, etc.), but the way we approach education — particularly in rural America — will evolve based on lessons learned from the pandemic.

Already we’re seeing changes in government regulations to respond to the need for telehealth adoption. No longer simply an interesting trend that supplements traditional delivery of health care, telehealth became the difference between receiving care and going without for many during the pandemic. An increasing number of states are recognizing medical licenses across borders, and basic health care and maintenance are generally becoming more accessible as technology becomes better, broadband becomes available in more areas, and connected devices become easier to use. Critical care in rural areas will continue to be a problem that needs to be addressed (we’re losing so many rural hospitals as a nation), but telehealth will make routine visits, remote monitoring, and basic maintenance more accessible and convenient — particularly for our aging population.

7) Significant Public Investment

It can be said that America is behind when it comes to infrastructure maintenance and development. Then again, that’s not an area where you’re ever really ahead.

I predict we will see a significant increase in the investment of our tax dollars in infrastructure development.

People on both sides of the Middle Majority lament the “wasteful spending” when the opposing party is doing the spending, but the fact is that partisan politics and economic reality don’t always align, and administrations from both parties have historically increased investment in infrastructure to boost our economy while solving real problems. And many people will realize, “Hey, it’s a good thing to have good roads and bridges, it’s a good thing to connect everyone to broadband, it’s a good thing to invest our tax dollars in ways that create new jobs and improve our quality of life.”

Yes, some of this investment will be controversial. For example, the FCC’s recent Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction awarded millions to Elon Musk’s Starlink, which hopes to blanket the sky with Low-Earth Orbit satellites that will connect us all to the internet. Early tests showed disappointingly low connection speeds, and engineers say for Starlink’s network to truly have an impact there will need to be many times more satellites in our skies. Is this an investment worth pursuing if it enables Starlink to perfect this technology and eventually play a leading role in delivering broadband to all of America? Some will say, “No, we have limited tax dollars available and should only invest them in proven technology.” Others will argue that public dollars play an important role in advancing technology, and this is a prime example that should be pursued.

We will also see controversy around solar technology and battery storage investments. There are those who view these as liberal wishful thinking, impractical technology that will never scale. Others see it as critical to our energy independence, not to mention a major weapon in our fight against climate change. I predict there will be increased attention focused on the impact such technologies have on job growth and scientific advancement as the general public becomes more aware of developments in these fields.

Less controversial will be the visible investment in repairs and new construction of roads and bridges, where heavy equipment and workers with hard hats are building lasting things that make transportation safer, less congested, and more convenient.

Conclusion

I don’t believe it’s an overstatement to say 2021 marks one of the top five defining moments in our nation’s history. The path we take as a whole will be determined by decisions made at all levels — from government leaders setting policy to individuals setting standards of personal conduct. When we return to these predictions a year from now, my hope is that we find ourselves healing on many fronts, growing and learning from others, and becoming better neighbors, citizens, and leaders because of the hard road we have walked with our fellow Americans.


(Last of three excerpts from the article, “What Lies Ahead: 11 Predictions for 2021 and Beyond” by Stephen V. Smith. The original can be found in its entirety on Medium. Note: Opinions of the writer do not necessarily reflect the opinions of WordSouth and its affiliates.)