Coronavirus and Connectivity
Too many view protective measures as all or nothing: Either we do everything, or we might as well do none. That’s wrong. Instead, we need to see that all our behavior adds up. Each decision we make to reduce risk helps. Each time we wear a mask, we’re throwing some safety on the pile. Each time we socialize outside instead of inside, we’re throwing some safety on the pile. Each time we stay six feet away instead of sitting closer together, we’re throwing some safety on the pile.
As COVID-19 has shifted life online, residents of towns like Monterey (MA) — they lack internet at home — have had to drive to public Wi-Fi hot spots to stay connected. Disparities in internet access took center stage during the Aug. 18 Massachusetts US Senate debate between incumbent Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) and his challenger, Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA).
The dual crises of changing census guidelines and the COVID-19 pandemic have shined a “great spotlight” on the impact that lack of access to broadband has in rural communities. “Access to education, access to jobs, it’s one of those areas where the whole partnership between business and government needs to happen, because it’s not going to be cheap,” said Lynden Schuyler, a director for census outreach at the Illinois Public Health Association.
Wyoming internet users have benefited the most from higher broadband speeds during the months of the pandemic, with average download speeds increasing by a whopping 52%. This is likely a result of a statewide push by the Wyoming Broadband Council to improve internet connectivity and speeds to underserved rural populations. Similar state-sponsored initiatives seem to have contributed to speed improvements elsewhere.
Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) led a group of 25 senators in calling on the Federal Communications Commission to boost its Lifeline program to keep students connected as millions return to school both virtually and in person. Since 1985, the FCC’s Lifeline program has made basic internet and telephone service more affordable for low-income Americans and has had bipartisan support.
With the end of the federal Keep Americans Connected pledge and the failure of Congress to pass comprehensive broadband aid, it’s clearer than ever before that local governments are the last line of defense against the digital divide, which has been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. However, in 21 states, legal barriers — often enacted at the behest of corporate telecommunication lobbyists — prevent local governments from investing in community broadband solutions to close the digital divide.
How did the birthplace of the internet become a nation where broadband is unavailable to large chunks of the population, keeping students from taking part fully in modern education and their parents from taking advantage of the modern economy? Big investments have been made in the internet in the U.S., but not uniformly or with an eye to expanding connectivity as far as possible. It’s not a task that private industry cares to take on, nor is it one that the public sector can solve on its own—not in a country with such a strident free-market ethos.
Although 90 percent of Colorado city and suburban districts have high levels of broadband connectivity, only a quarter of the 112 rural districts have high levels of connectivity, and many have low or very low levels, according to an analysis by the Regional Educational Laboratory Central at Centennial-based Marzano Research. 94 percent of the 28,200 students within Mesa County Valley School district have broadband internet (speeds greater than 25 megabits per second).
From where I stand, changing direction on Connexion now would be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The biggest problem with Connexion, the city of Fort Collins' (CO) broadband service, is that the deployment wasn't further along before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Demand for Connexion has risen dramatically since COVID. With demand comes revenue with a short delay while they hook folks up.
About as far west as you can go in the US before hitting Russia lies the string of Aleutian Islands. It's where the Discovery Channel's The Deadliest Catch is filmed and where most fish destined for restaurants in the continental US gets processed. A tiny school system in the region, the Aleutians East Borough School District, educates 230 students across four schools. About 85% of the kids are Alaska Native. Traveling between the four schools requires flights on twin-engine planes or, in one case, a flight followed by a helicopter ride.