Across the country, more people than ever are working and learning from home, making a quality Internet connection vital for everyone in every locality during the Covid-19 pandemic. For Americans in inadequately connected areas — rural and urban — adapting to a more isolated and remote learning and working lifestyle proves extremely difficult when lacking a reliable Internet connection.
Many electric cooperatives and other broadband providers have quickly rolled out solutions to ensure that their subscribers are connected and well-equipped to adapt. Many of them are also working with community institutions to ensure all residents have some level of connectivity, especially children for remote learning purposes.
OzarksGo Brings Broadband to Busses
Ozarks Electric Cooperative has been working diligently with its fiber division, OzarksGo, to find solutions to improve connectivity for the communities it serves. In a phone interview, Steven Bandy, the general manager of Ozarks Electric, explained that as stay at home orders were issued, more and more homes within their service area were requesting new fiber hook ups. At the same time, families outside of their territory were scrambling for Internet connectivity.
OzarksGo serves nine counties in Arkansas and western Oklahoma, and they have thus far built out 75 percent of their network. They began deploying the network in 2016 and set a goal of having all of the fiber lit within six years. Bandy is still confident they can stick to this timeline, but he explained that the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted their supply chain and temporarily slowed their ability to make new connections to homes.
That said, they are still finding innovative ways to increase connectivity for residents in their area. When employees of Ozarks Electric saw that the school districts in the counties they serve were planning to set up Wi-Fi hotspots in decommissioned school busses, Bandy and his team at OzarksGo reached out to see how they could help.
They currently have at least six mobile hotspots, three of which are busses connected to fiber, that are providing increased Wi-Fi connectivity throughout the region. Three of the Wi-Fi hotspots are specifically placed around the Huntsville and Elkins school districts to aid students. Some of the Wi-Fi hotspots are supported by the school’s current network. For others, OzarksGo wired fiber to parked school busses and is managing those hotspots.
Additionally, OzarksGo has extended their suspension of disconnects and late fees through June 30th, in compliance with the “Keep Americans Connected Pledge," which they have signed onto. They will also continue to boost the speed of their basic Internet plan from 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) to 200 Mbps.
Co-ops Across the Country Pitch In
The quick innovation of co-ops like OzarksGo is crucial for families in this trying time. Other co-ops are also adapting to ensure the best possible connectivity for their surrounding residents. For example, Prince George Electric Cooperative (PGEC) in central Virginia also began deploying free mobile hotspots for students' remote learning purposes. Similarly, Paulding Putnam Electric Cooperative in Ohio quickly set up a free public Wi-Fi hotspot accessible from their parking lot to ensure students and residents have access.
Roanoke Electric Cooperative in North Carolina installed free Wi-Fi hotspots in school parking lots in Halifax County School District after the superintendent expressed concern. He explained that most of the students are in the free lunch program, which means many don’t have access to an Internet connection at home.
Kit Carson Electric Cooperative has set up 21 free Wi-Fi hotspots around the communities it serves in New Mexico. Luis A. Reyes Jr., CEO of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, explained in a press release [pdf], “Providing essential services to our students, elderly and low-income families is our main priority.”
Check out The Journal’s national list of telecommunications companies and cooperatives that are providing free Wi-Fi access for online learning during COVID-19 pandemic.
Tune into the Community Broadband Bits podcast episode 411 to hear more from Ozarks Electric’s General Manager Steven Bandy about their ongoing work.