Across New Hampshire, families and businesses know that broadband access isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, that fact is more true today than it was just months ago.
Telehealth, as well as virtual services for school, work, and connecting with loved ones have helped keep people safe and healthy amid the pandemic — and Granite Staters have adapted and have taken advantage of these services as much as possible. Dartmouth-Hitchcock, for example, saw the number of patients accessing their online outpatient services increase from around seven patients a day to roughly 2,000 a day.
Unfortunately, some people in our state still do not have broadband access, either because reliable high speed broadband infrastructure isn’t available in their area, or because they can’t afford it. And while the increase in demand for services has laid bare these challenges, especially in rural areas, Granite Staters experienced them long before this pandemic started.
In a recent discussion with community leaders from across our state, I heard how COVID-19 has exacerbated the already persistent digital divide.
Terry Burlingame, a Spanish educator for the Gilmanton School District, shared that some parents were taking their children to the parking lots of their school to do their schoolwork from the car, because it was the only way they could access a Wi-Fi connection. Tim Murphy, executive director of the Southwest Region Planning Commission in Keene, said his organization is having trouble conducting virtual meetings because their connection is not strong enough to support all of their organization’s needs. And even though Dartmouth-Hitchcock was able to significantly scale up telehealth operations, many patients who they serve still have an unreliable, nonexistent or unaffordable Internet connection.
As we continue to respond to this pandemic — and afterwards — we need to build up our broadband infrastructure and ensure that all Granite Staters can get and afford a reliable broadband connection, regardless of where they live or how much money they earn.
Spurred by the new demands caused by the pandemic, there have already been a number of efforts to help expand access to broadband. The bipartisan CARES Act included important provisions to expand access to broadband to support remote learning and telemedicine, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced a new $1.9 million investment to improve broadband service in rural New Hampshire.
Our state also received welcome news last month when we were added to the National Broadband Availability Map program, which collects and shares on-the-ground data about where broadband is available. This is in addition to a bill that the president signed into law in March, which I cosponsored, to improve the accuracy and reliability of the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband maps. These steps forward will help policymakers make informed decisions and direct federal funding to regions where broadband expansion is needed the most, like rural areas of New Hampshire.
But these steps alone aren’t enough, and I’m focused on building on them. I recently helped introduce the Emergency Educational Connections Act, legislation aimed at ensuring all K-12 students have adequate home Internet connectivity and devices during this pandemic. School districts and parents are doing all that they can to get their students connected — and this bill will help keep more of them on a path to success while learning from home.
I’ve also joined with Sen. Shaheen in calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to strengthen New Hampshire veterans’ access to telehealth during this pandemic. And I am continuing to push for the Senate to pass bipartisan bills that I introduced with Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito to give states and localities the resources and flexibility that they need to finance broadband projects in the areas that most need it.
There is more work to do to help all Granite Staters get and stay connected. Even after we get through this pandemic, I will continue pushing to invest in and expand broadband so that all of our people can thrive.