The need for nationwide broadband access has never been more prevalent than now when at least 100 million people are currently under state and local government orders to stay in their homes to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Estimates for the number of residents across the U.S. without access to high-speed internet has been reported at 21.3 million by the FCC, yet Microsoft considers the number to be as high as 157 million. Many residents without home internet access have had to rely on access at work, school, libraries, and community centers. With facilities facing closures due to the spread of COVID-19, however, the problem is more noticeable as auxiliary networks have been turned off or strained due to overuse, said Kathryn de Wit, Broadband Research Manager at Pew Charitable Trusts.
“The silver lining to this really bad situation is that it is reinforcing and providing additional support to the conversations that state policymakers have been having with increasing frequency over the past several years,” de Wit told StateScoop. “If that results in more funding, if that results in more state policymakers really paying attention to this issue and federal policymakers focusing on solving this problem, that’s a good outcome.”
While dealing with public health concerns is a top priority for state officials, several states are reporting the need for broadband access as an additional emergency that needs to be addressed at a federal level.
Maine, ranking 43rd on the list of best states for broadband internet, was pushing for rural broadband improvements prior to COVID-19. It moved to pass Gov. Janet Mills’ $15 million broadband bond last week, providing infrastructure buildout into rural areas.
Peggy Schaffer, the executive director of ConnectMaine, the state’s broadband authority, said, “We’ve had pushes and shoves about moving money forward into broadband in this state, and we’ve had a small amount of money every year that’s part of our annual budget. But no large chunks of money — we’ve been unable to sort of move people in that direction. [The coronavirus] absolutely has moved and shook priorities.”
North Carolina has been advocating that electric cooperatives combine resources with local ISPs to expand internet access in rural areas. Scott Mooneyham of the North Carolina League of Municipalities expressed concern about his state’s rural broadband. “We have a situation right now in North Carolina where there are many communities, or portions of communities,” that provide service from a single internet company, Mooneyham said. “Those single internet providers are utilizing legacy, copper-line technology that’s not adequate to the job. There’s no incentive for those companies to make the kinds of investments that are going to change that right now.”
“What [the coronavirus] does is shine light on the fact that those non-home connections and solutions, whether its access to the internet via your mobile device or relying on a hotspot to get online, those are good short-term solutions,” de Wit said. “But what we really need is to have to have a discussion about the longer-term solution that can help close that gap.”
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