While many people are working from home during the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home order, there are many that are struggling because of lack of adequate broadband access.
“One thing that this pandemic is showing Americans across the country is that broadband is no longer a luxury,” said Tyler Cooper, editor in chief of BroadbandNow. “Access to broadband is really a prerequisite for modern living.”
BroadbandNow is a national research team that helps consumers learn about internet providers in their area. Cooper said on a national scale, there are many people finding themselves stuck at home and unable to work because there isn’t adequate broadband access.
In a previous interview, Nathan Frost, director of new technology at Dominion Energy, described broadband coverage as looking at the hub of a tire. There are densely populated areas in the center and as those populations spread wider, there’s less coverage.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) urged the Federal Communications Commission Thursday to take action to address broadband issues. Warner suggested the FCC make it easier for wireless providers by temporarily increasing relevant power limits and by relaxing current antenna height restrictions, according to a new release from the FCC.
In a letter to the FCC, Warner specifically addressed how to improve broadband for those in underserved, rural communities because while many people in urban areas take broadband access for granted, those in rural areas have found themselves in a bind.
In the Historic Triangle, residents live in a mix of both urban and rural locations which makes broadband access seem more confusing.
According to data from BroadbandNow’s research, 98.8 percent of people in York County, 96.3 percent of people in James City County, 69.9 percent of people in Williamsburg have access to broadband coverage. The state average is 87 percent access to broadband coverage.
Cooper said while those percentages seem fairly high, it still leaves thousands of people in the area without coverage which eventually leads to growing disparities in economic opportunities.
“It’s important even during normal times, which makes it more important now,” Cooper said. “When we are talking about the disparity between urban and rural communities, we’re often talking about young learners as well.”
Cooper said access to broadband impacts students because those who have access to the internet at home are being taught skills that will give them an advantage as the economy continues to digitize.
Those without connection will find themselves falling behind.
This is becoming even more true now as education moves to online platforms. On March 20, Gov. Ralph Northam ordered all schools to close through the end of the school year. As a result, many teachers and educational platforms have moved to online resources to reach students.
Those without internet access in Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools and the York County School Division were given educational packets but in a more internet-focused world, these don’t necessarily provide everything a student needs to get ahead.
To address this issue, some localities are taking steps to provide access to residents.
In Gloucester County, which has 94.3 percent access to broadband, staff have worked to form partnerships with local businesses and buildings to provide free WiFi access from their parking lots, according to a news release from the locality.
Similarly, the Williamsburg Regional Library launched a new hotspot WiFi program — the library will park a vehicle at designated locations throughout the community where a hotspot can be accessed by up to 15 people at a time.
“I think that has been a fantastic idea,” said Jason Purse, James City County assistant administrator. “Getting information to all citizens is so vital right now so I’m glad to see they’re meeting that need.”
Part of the issue, he said, is that the county doesn’t have the authority to force broadband providers to expand their access. While people have reached out expressing concern over lack of access, he said providers require a certain level of population density to reach areas.
Purse said the county doesn’t currently have any additional plans to address broadband accessibility but it’s something that is being discussed.
“The county is absolutely aware of the need to have broadband available to everybody, especially as folks are stuck in their home,” he said.
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