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Perspective | Coping with COVID-19 reveals serious broadband gaps

Thanks to a stealthy, spiky virus, we’re about to get a nationwide lesson in the challenging state of our broadband infrastructure.

As schools, public agencies, and employers of all sizes relocate, slow down, or shut down to combat the spread of coronavirus, millions of people are turning to digital connections. Students need access to online lessons and homework assignments. Employees working from home need access to company files, software, and video meetings. And a whole lot of us are going to want access to a whole lot of Netflix.

In theory, it should be easier than ever to accomplish some of the core tasks of work, school, and life from home. The technology for remote meetings has gotten better, the platforms for sharing work and school assignments are easier to use, and there’s been an explosion of choice in the world of online entertainment and socializing. 

Almost all of that, however, depends on a reliably fast internet connection. I’ve talked to colleagues who live within easy commuting distance of our state’s most advanced research universities but have no options for cable or fiber-optic connections at their homes. If they want to continue teaching and research during a prolonged campus shutdown, they’ll find it extraordinarily challenging.

That’s an even bigger problem for students who might return home to our state’s rural counties. It’s great that we’ll have the ability to teach many classes online, but that doesn’t much help a student who can’t log on from home.

At last month’s Emerging Issues Forum on broadband access, we heard about the “homework gap” that already affects students across our state. Despite significant progress in the past few years, almost 18% of North Carolina households have no internet access, and those are disproportionately located in the rural areas of the state. 

But that absence of connection isn’t just about fiber. A notable portion of the state’s offline households are also in urban areas, cut off not by distance but by cost. More than 40% of North Carolina households where broadband is available don’t subscribe. Infrastructure isn’t helpful if you can’t afford to use it.

“That’s an equity issue,” said Roberto Gallardo of the Purdue Center for Regional Development, speaking at last month’s Forum. “We’re leaving people behind through no fault of their own.”

We’re also slowing the rollout of medical technologies that could be especially valuable in moments like this. Kim Schwartz, the CEO of the Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center, spoke at the forum about remote health monitoring that her center uses to track patients with chronic conditions. It allows doctors and nurses to see potential issues in real time, making it possible for them to intervene before a patient has to visit the office.

As we all learn the phrase “self-quarantine at home,” that kind of distance monitoring will be critical. Unfortunately, it only works for people with access to good internet and the ability to pay for it, and that leaves out many North Carolinians.

Those gaps are going to become glaringly obvious in the weeks and months ahead as we all try to do our part in the face of an unprecedented challenge to public health. We’re going to find that some schools, some businesses, and some communities are in a much better position to weather the hard challenges of social distancing and moving big pieces of life online.

Wake County Public Schools, for example, are getting devices out to everyone who needs them so that students can learn. Others will struggle mightily to carry on in a world where in-person work and schooling has become temporarily risky.

Fortunately, our state has been forward-looking in beginning to address the challenge. Our state Broadband Infrastructure Office is one of just two in the nation with staff dedicated to overcoming digital inclusion challenges. And over the past week, we’ve seen public and private entities step forward with short-term solutions that could begin to help more people gain access to the internet.

It’s time to put those efforts into overdrive. The divide that separates those with digital access from those who don’t has been real and growing for a quarter century. As the coronavirus shines a spotlight on it, now’s the time to fix it. We can’t afford not to.

Leslie Boney

Leslie Boney is the director of NC State University’s Institute for Emerging Issues.