Credit Sen. Maggie Hassan and the rest of New Hampshire’s Congressional delegation for continuing the focus on the broadband needs of the state and the region. The trick will be whether the rest of Congress and the Federal Communications Commission will follow through in addressing those needs.
In what now seems like a former world — that is, before the COVID-19 lockdown — Hassan hosted a roundtable discussion in Keene on Feb. 20 for local officials to discuss the effect of broadband unavailability in the region. Among the shortcomings she heard about, some proved hauntingly prophetic shortly afterward, as the effort to control the spread of the coronavirus has forced so many to rely so heavily on the Internet.
At the February roundtable, Robert Malay, superintendent of SAU 29, expressed concern for Internet equity among students when not at school, stating that those who lack adequate Internet access may have fewer educational options than those who have it. And Dr. Don Caruso, president and CEO of Cheshire Medical Center, told Hassan of technology advances that make providing more comprehensive medical care possible, but that require high-speed Internet in order to reach patients effectively. He said a lot of hospital-centric telemedicine is done at Cheshire Medical, but getting telemedicine to rural patients “can’t happen without broadband.”
On May 29, Hassan hosted another roundtable — this one held of necessity by teleconference and therefore itself broadband dependent — that served as an update of the February session. This one highlighted how efforts to meet the health, education, business and other needs of the state in a time of social distancing have been hampered by the so-called digital divide between those having broadband connectivity and those unable to obtain it due to rural location or for economic reasons.
In health care, during a period when many nonessential in-person visits were prohibited or sharply limited, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s telemedicine center ramped up its remote outpatient visits from seven per day before the pandemic outbreak to over 2,000 per day, according to Dr. Kevin Curtis, the center’s medical director. As impressive as that increase is, he also reported that in many cases those appointments could happen only with adequate broadband.
As for the efforts to provide remote learning while schools have been closed, Hassan heard from public school educators about issues students and teachers have had getting online. That similar problems are being experienced here in Keene was confirmed at last week’s City Council budget hearing, where a Keene resident reported knowing of a local teacher being unable to teach due to limited connectivity in her area and of students from her neighborhood parking at Panera Bread to do schoolwork.
It was encouraging that FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel was part of Hassan’s May 29 roundtable and that she shares Hassan’s view Internet access is not a luxury but an essential of daily life. And echoing the other participants in saying how that need has become even more critical following the coronavirus shutdown, she expressed optimism that the pandemic would motivate the FCC “to use this crisis to make meaningful progress with broadband for all.”
There has been progress in the region to close some of the broadband inequities, most notably resulting from state legislation sponsored by Sen. Jay Kahn of Keene that enables communities to bond broadband infrastructure. And Thursday, Gov. Chris Sununu announced the state was directing $50 million of its federal CARES Act grant to provide “last-mile” funding to connect homes and businesses close, but not connected, to the Internet. Still, it’s clear more federal action is needed to assure high-speed access to all areas, and progress following promising sentiments from Washington has proved fleeting in the past. It was a welcome step, then, that the N.H. Congressional delegation announced last week the state had been added to the National Broadband Availability Map initiative of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. That map is a geographic information system platform being developed to provide richer data identifying regions with insufficient Internet service to aid policy makers planning broadband expansion, and its funding has been a priority of New Hampshire’s Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
The step is a small one, and Shaheen and Hassan have also been pressuring the FCC to fix its broadband coverage maps, which indicate there’s broadband availability in some places, including locally, where there’s not. The delegation is also backing bipartisan legislation, including two bills co-sponsored by Hassan with Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, to provide financial incentives for broadband expansion in rural areas.
On its website, the FCC proclaims its primary strategic goal to be “closing the digital divide ... so that the benefits of advanced communications services are available to all Americans.” Let’s hope the efforts to keep focus on the inequities rural areas face will result in FCC and other action in Washington to address the issue meaningfully. As Hassan put it at February’s pre-pandemic roundtable, “We really can’t compete in the economy, nor can we participate in our democracy and our communities, without access to broadband.” COVID-19 has since made the imperative greater.