The recent wave of COVID-19 infections highlights once again the shortcomings in broadband accessibility confronting this region and so many other parts of the country, particularly in educating schoolchildren.
Locally, schools pivoted quickly in the late winter to remote learning environments during the lockdown that lasted through the school year, but inadequate Internet access and technology meant the educational experience of too many of the region’s children suffered. With time to plan over the summer, most districts were able to implement plans to restore at least part-time in-person learning this fall, and a few found ways to go fully in person. Now, with COVID-19 surging dangerously once again, many area schools have temporarily returned to remote learning to reduce the risk of virus spread during the holidays, and the specter of a complete return still hangs over them.
And, as a recent report by The Sentinel’s Caleb Symons shows, despite several initiatives that have helped make Internet connections in the region more affordable and accessible, the challenges of obtaining an effective remote learning experience remain for many. The effort to address inequities in remote learning has come from local school districts, public and private organizations and state agencies. In a number of the districts, Internet “hotspot” devices have been distributed that enhance Wi-Fi Internet from cellular networks. SAU 29, which includes Keene among its school districts, has taken steps, including providing laptops, to help students facing difficulties in attending virtual classes.
But gaps remain. Hotspot devices can do only so much, particularly as their effectiveness requires an adequate an cellphone signal — itself a challenge in the region — and may be limited for families with multiple schoolchildren as well as parents competing for bandwidth. Clearly, widely available high-speed Internet access remains a need. As executive director Liz Chapman of the Keene Housing Kids Collaborative said, “[I]f children don’t have access to Internet, they just don’t have access to school the way it is now with remote learning.”
The issue of course extends beyond education needs. Even before the onset of COVID-19, lack of high-speed Internet put the region at a competitive disadvantage in attracting and retaining businesses and workers. That has only been put in starker relief by the public-health precautions, now that so many businesses have learned to operate remotely. And even when the pandemic eventually ends, many will likely find cost-savings or other advantages to keeping some workforce remote. Similarly, the pandemic has shown how telehealth can improve health-care delivery and reduce costs, but expanding its use will also require stepped-up broadband access.
A government boost is necessary to bring adequate connectivity to the rural and other underserved areas of the country that don’t offer the financial return to attract private investment. In June, the state announced a $50 million Broadband Expansion Program, funded by federal CARES Act money, that has brought some broadband expansion to rural areas, including parts of Hinsdale, Nelson and Stoddard in this region. But only $15 million of that has been spent, and the program is set to expire at year’s end.
There was welcome news last week when the Federal Communications Commission announced the state will receive more than $25 million over 10 years from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. This will enable four providers — Consolidated Communications among them — to expand broadband infrastructure to an estimated 17,000 homes and small businesses throughout the state, including several Monadnock Region towns.
That’s an important “step toward closing the digital gap between urban and rural areas,” as Sen. Jeanne Shaheen described it in a news release issued by the state’s congressional delegation applauding the FCC’s announcement. It is, however, only one step on the longer road to assuring equally adequate high-speed Internet. An important, further, one would be if Congress and the White House could finally agree on a COVID-19 stimulus package that, among other necessary aid, extends the deadline facing the state’s program.
“The pandemic has underscored how vital reliable, high speed internet is to staying connected and remaining competitive in a 21st century economy,” Rep. Chris Pappas stated when commenting on the FCC’s announcement. It will remain or be even more so after the pandemic, and rural areas, including this one, need help.