The COVID-19 crisis and the resulting school closures and stay-at-home orders have highlighted the digital divide that separates the broadband haves from the have-nots.
Tens of thousands of people are trying to work and learn remotely. But not everyone can get online.
Count Todd Comen and his son Philip among the have-nots. The Comens met with a reporter – at a safe distance – outside the Rumney Memorial School in Middlesex, where snowcapped Mt. Hunger looms nearby.
Philip is a sales rep for an outdoor clothing retailer. But like many young adults, he and his brother Noah work and live at home these days. All is good, except for their glacially-slow internet from Consolidated Communications.
“We might as well have dial-up at this point,” Philip said. “Now we have three people trying to work professional jobs that are based out-of-state, and we need to connect.”
So they find work-arounds: Wireless hot spots in Montpelier, even a snowy hike up the hill behind their house to get a good cell signal so their phones can access large files.
“I’ve been running up the hill to load up some data or download some photos or whatever I need. It’s not great, but it functions without driving to town,” Philip said.
His father Todd is a professor of hospitality management at Endicott College in Massachusetts who now works from home. And Todd's main concern is all the students who are trying to learn remotely.
“We need to really think about those students, 'cause they are the future of Vermont. And if they can’t make it in the rural areas, then it’s pretty tough,” he said.
The Senate Finance Committee recently heard some alarming news about the digital divide facing some students and parents. Jay Nichols, the executive director of the Vermont Principals Association, put it plainly:
“There’s lots of homes without internet. And it’s also expensive. As principals, we think that is a real equity issue for the state,” Nichols said. “And if we don’t tackle that, then it’s going to be really hard to support kids if we go through another crisis like this in the future.”
Nichols said he has to juggle internet time on a slow connection at home in Berkshire, with his daughter and school-age grandson. He knows it’s worse for others.
“People are losing jobs. They’re stressed out," he said. "They’re not in a position to really help their children with their schoolwork, internet access or not."
It’s hard to get an exact number of how many students are at home without good broadband for online learning. The Department of Public Service says about 7% of Vermont addresses lack access to basic internet, while 77% of Vermont addresses can get speeds that meet the federal definition of broadband. But that doesn’t mean all those people can afford the service.
Look at just a few districts and you see the differences. Up to half the students in the Orleans Southwest district live without reliable broadband, according to a survey by the superintendent. That compares to 15% of students in the Lamoille South district who lack adequate internet.
Access also varies widely across towns within a school district according to Jeff Francis, director of the Vermont Superintendents Association. He says Thetford has great service, but nearby communities don’t.
“In the town of Newbury, which is in the same supervisory district as Thetford, 30% of the students in Newbury don’t have access,” he said.
Providers have taken steps to address the issue. They’ve opened up Wi-Fi hotspots, lifted data caps, and waived disconnections if customers get behind on bills. Springfield-based Vermont Telephone Company is offering free high-speed wireless service to students in Rutland.
Educators are also doing their own work-arounds. In the Lamoille South Supervisory Union, superintendent Tracy Wrend has worked with the Capstone Community Action to buy 50 iPhones. Wrend says the plan is for families to use the phones as wireless hotspots.
“It certainly won’t be a solution for all families. Some families in our region, not only do they not have internet access, they also don’t have cell phone access,” she said. “So there still may be families for whom this is not a solution. But we’ll still be taking a big step to meeting an unmet need.”
As Wrend pointed out digital dead-ends exist for a variety of reasons ranging from economic to technological.
Consolidated Communications, which bought the legacy landline company FairPoint, serves many parts of the state. But its DSL internet is often slower than cable or fiber optic service to the home. The company has also struggled in recent years as it landline customers leave and competitors with more attractive offerings whittle away at its broadband business.
Consolidated spokeswoman Shannon Sullivan said the while there’s still work to do, the company is committed to improving service in Vermont.
“We committed an additional $1 million per year on average in 2018, 2019 and 2020 to improve services in areas of the state where we see a higher number of troubles,” she said. “We also pledged to reinvest 14% of the company’s Vermont revenues back into the state during the same period, while expanding broadband utilizing Connect America Funding and our own investments.”
In Middlesex, Todd Comen said a Consolidated technician told his family their service could be greatly improved if the company upgraded a switch a few miles from their house. It hasn’t happened yet.
Comen also pointed out that the state and federal government has invested tens millions of dollars in state and federal money in the last decade to improve connectivity.
“It’s still a problem. I threw my hands up years ago, and I figured, well, we’re just going to have to live with this,” he said. “But during this crisis, and knowing how many people now are working from home, studying from home, it’s just unacceptable.”
Indeed, that may be one of the biggest lessons of the COVID-19 crisis: It’s shown the absolute necessity of good, affordable broadband for work and education. Clay Purvis, telecommunications director at the Vermont Department of Public Service, put it this way at a recent legislative hearing:
“At the risk of sounding callous, the pandemic is going to highlight for America the real effects of the digital divide,” he said.
Purvis’s boss, Public Service Commissioner June Tierney, said she plans to underscore that point as she works with counterparts around the country to get federal help to boost broadband in rural areas.
“I fully intend to use this as a battering ram with the federal government to get them to understand, if they don’t already, how this pandemic highlights the need to think about this critical infrastructure in the essential nature that it actually has, which is that it is essential,” she said. “And it needs to be treated as a matter of public policy and funding as necessary.”