I used to find it mildly annoying—a crossword puzzle that wouldn’t load or an email attachment that never appeared—but since the advent of COVID-19, the impact of inadequate and unreliable internet service has been real, often disrupting, and sometimes overwhelming.
As COVID-19 has forced an increased reliance on Zoom, Skype, and Webex for meetings about County business; meetings with diocesan church leadership; board meetings of local and regional agencies; and countless committee and task force meetings, I realized what every parent in this country (and probably the world) already knew—where you live, and thus whether you have high quality, high speed internet—defines the “haves” and the “have nots.” It’s as much, if not more, of a game-changer than was electricity in the early 1900s.
I had known of, and experienced on a somewhat limited level, what it meant to be a “have not” prior to COVID-19. When I was in the Public Defender’s Office, I knew that, while I could write a brief for the Missouri Supreme Court at home, I certainly couldn’t do the online research from there. In more recent years, I knew that I couldn’t watch a webinar from the National Association of Counties (NACo) or any of the other national organizations with whom NACo partners like the Pritzker Foundation, the Corporation for Supportive Housing, or the Urban Institute. But I wasn’t a “have not” to the extent that so many others—families and individuals—experience day in and day out.
When COVID-19 hit, the inequities in internet access gave our country a collective gobsmack. The work that had been going on to create a real and robust internet system throughout this country was put in the spotlight as schools turned to online learning, families were forced to turn into home-based IT experts, and telecommuting became the norm. The fact that millions of dollars had been thrown at the issue by the federal government made our lack of service become ever more apparent.
One of the problems before COVID-19 was that people just didn’t comprehend that so many of us have miserable to non-existent internet service where we work, live and play. According to the FCC, 80% percent of the 24 million American households that do not have reliable, affordable, high-speed internet are in rural areas. This situation was in part obfuscated—and seriously underestimated--by FCC definitions of internet access in which internet service companies reported an area as having service if one person within a zip code had access. REALLY?
The program that NACo began several years ago—“Test It”—designed for each of us to use our mobile phones in every location we can find, to ascertain the level of service available at that place, became a real tool for highlighting internet deserts. I learned about the program and brought the information home to Boone County, where we immediately put information about it on the County’s website. Boone Countians began to “test” and we, along with people across the country, began to demonstrate through fact gathering, the actual state of internet inadequacy. Yes, Virginia, there is no reliable, let alone high speed, internet at my house—and I am not alone.
Ironically, here in Boone County many of us suffer from being “too rural” for decent internet service, but “not rural enough” to entice service providers to extend broadband service.
To actually get us connected, it’s going to take two things—well, actually three: money—spent wisely and with oversight; one or more local internet service providers willing to make the leap; and a sense of civic responsibility. The federal government continues to allocate funding for internet access in the form of both grants and loans, but it will take a local provider to secure the funds and invest in the technology.
USDA has been investing in rural telecommunications for decades. Their 2019-2020 ReConnect Program offered more than $1 billion for modern broadband e-connectivity in rural communities in loans and grant funds. In addition to ReConnect, the Rural Utilities Service administers three other rural broadband connectivity programs: The Telecommunications Infrastructure Loan Program, the Community Connect Grant Program, and the Rural Broadband Access Loan and Grant Program, not to mention the CARES funding most recently made available for broadband internet expansion.
Depending on the funding source, federal money to extend broadband to rural areas is available to co-ops, non-profits, mutuals, for-profit companies, LLCs, states, local governments, or “any agency, subdivision, instrumentality, or political subdivision thereof”.
Let’s finally make broadband internet service a reality for rural Boone County and help bring potential providers together to lead the way!