Rural school districts are in WIFI purgatory



The great divide rears its ugly head

rural, wifi, connections, students, teachers, COVID-19, learning

When Governor Cuomo missed the 2018 deadline which would have provided broadband access to every New Yorker, it caused a new crisis in March of 2020 when we sent our kids home to prevent the spread of Covid-19.  This is called the butterfly effect…something happens in one place and it affects things elsewhere that are not directly connected.

In March 2020 schools decided to create remote classrooms to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. Although this was a creative solution to an emerging problem, students with no broadband access at home were no longer receiving the education to which they are entitled.  

Lawmakers representing communities in upstate New York have voiced concerns about the issue for years, fighting to increase access to high-speed internet in rural communities that often struggle to even get a bar of cell service. According to an article on politico.com, despite repeated pledges by state officials to remedy the situation, access to high-speed broadband internet remains elusive in the state’s bucolic areas.

Cuomo committed to providing broadband access to every New Yorker by the end of 2018, but missed the deadline. That effort hinged in part on Charter building out service in upstate New York, but after the company counted locations getting service in urban areas, a protracted legal fight followed, with Cuomo threatening to kick the company out of the state.

He committed $500 million in state subsidies to encourage private companies to build out the necessary infrastructure and sought to leverage a major telecommunications merger to hit the goal. But technological limits, funding delays and a dispute with Charter Communications have combined to thwart the governor's goal.

Ultimately, Charter agreed to build out more broadband service. But the deadline for the company to finish the job was extended to September 2021. Cuomo also put $500 million toward grants to extend service to rural areas, but some of that work is also still incomplete, and some residents are being served by satellite service they complain is inadequate.

The Brookings Institution, a policy research group in Washington DC, agrees that this divide is causing huge problems across the United States. With a disproportionate number of school-age children lacking home broadband access, the breadth of the U.S. digital divide has been revealed as schools struggle to substitute in-school resources with online instruction, electronic libraries, streaming videos, and other online tutorials.

A recent report said that the Sullivan West School District polled every household this summer and found that 10 percent to 15 percent of its roughly 1,000 students lacked broadband or had only inconsistent service. Superintendent Stephen Walker told the Times Herald-Record that those children will be given priority for in-person instruction in the coming school year, allowing them to be in school as often possible.

Tri-Valley School District in Grahamsville, a district of similar size to the north, has a comparable coverage gap, with about 15 percent of students cut off from reliable, high-speed service. Administrators are looking into buying internet hot spots for those students' homes to be used solely for schoolwork on Google Chromebooks the district provides. They are also and setting up satellite WiFi locations for families that also lack cell service at their homes.

Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, a Forestburgh Democrat who represents most of Sullivan County and part of Orange, said her office fields multiple complaints from constituents each day about inadequate broadband service, a problem she has labored to address for the last several years.

Senator Jen Metzger, one of five senators serving on the New York State Rural Resources Commission, points out that the problem in rural areas is not only access but the widely varying speeds with which broadband is delivered. For example, some forms of broadband are too slow to run video programs such as Zoom which may be used in many classroom discussions, as well as for work meetings.

Basically, the rural areas are working with companies and the government to provide more broadband service as quickly as possible. Spectrum stated that the Fallsburg area in Sullivan County won’t be getting anything until at least January. They claim they are waiting on permission to use utility poles they need to run the cable on.

Some 2,789 Sullivan County residents, or 3.7 percent, don’t have high-speed mobile or fixed internet access, according to a 2018 FCC study using 2016 data. That figure is 5,925, or 3.3 percent, in Ulster County and 0.3 percent, or 1,140, in Orange County. (this info is from summer 2019) 



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